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On growth.

This March, I had an unexpected opportunity to go back to Honduras – this time for my job in the UNC Office of Global Health.

The trip involved visiting a local NGO and providing technical assistance for their childhood malnutrition projects. We visited field sites in the rural areas around the capital city (Tegucigalpa) to observe a program that consisted of mothers and other caretakers bringing their 0-2 year old children in each month to participate in growth monitoring and growth promotion activities:

Growth monitoring consists of weighing the baby during each visit, and tracking their growth by weight over time. Monitors compare the baby’s weight and growth to standard charts that help them determine whether the child is growing adequately.

Growth monitoring.

Growth promotion consists of providing counseling to the mothers of children who aren’t growing adequately. The counseling helps them identify the causes of inadequate growth (illness, not eating enough, not eating the right things, etc.) and how to remedy those problems so that the child’s growth can get back on track.

Growth promotion.

In Honduras, children don’t typically suffer of acute, severe malnutrition. A child may look relatively healthy, but be suffering from chronic malnutrition that causes their growth to stagnate. Without monitoring their growth regularly – and intervening when necessary – their growth is stunted, and they don’t develop properly.

And so it is with us, I think.

With all that talk about growth all week, it got me thinking about my own growth as a person. How often do I measure my growth, and compare it to where I ought to be? How often do I make a plan regarding how to get back on track?

That trip to Honduras served as such an opportunity to monitor my growth. There were multiple occasions throughout the week when I took pause and stepped back mentally, as if watching myself through a window, and marveled at how much I have learned. How much I have changed. How much I have grown.

I’ve spent the past two years in a rigorous graduate program that many of us describe as a sprint to the finish. The pace and volume of work has been incredible, and the juggling act has captured so much of my attention that I’ve taken little time to reflect on and notice how much I’ve been learning.

But the beauty of growth is that it happens while we aren’t watching. Small, incremental changes aren’t really noticeable hour by hour, or day by day. We face our daily struggles and triumphs, we solve problems, and we learn – not really noticing as we go along that we have actually grown. The danger is that our stagnation can also escape our notice – just as we can grow, we can also stall or even regress in subtle ways that we aren’t aware of.

Being in Honduras this time around felt like pushing “pause” for 10 days and stepping out of my normal life. What I discovered was that my story from the past couple of years is one of immense growth. I felt a degree of confidence I didn’t know I had. Things that were difficult for me a year ago came naturally. Questions I once didn’t know to ask slipped off my tongue easily. Ideas and problems that I’ve discussed and debated in classrooms became real before my eyes – and though I still didn’t know how to solve them, I could talk about them and struggle with them alongside some very, very smart people. And it made me think to myself – by jove, I know things!

Having such an experience 2 months before graduation was such a gift. It made me realize that the challenges are indeed worth it. It is easy to lose sight of that when grad school means being up at 2am formatting references on the 18th draft of a research paper, or scheduling long days filled with back-to-back group meetings. But to take that pause and see how much what I’m learning matters – and to see that I am indeed growing and still have so much more to learn – was motivating and inspiring. I came back with renewed strength and vigor, and I was able to sprint to the finish as hard as I could with a renewed spirit and my head held high with hope.

Literally sprinting through the School of Public Health to turn in our Capstone project deliverables – 30 seconds before they were due.

Alongside some of the most incredible, compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, I will graduate tomorrow. We’ll celebrate (oh yes, we will!) all that we have learned and accomplished together.

Of course – growth is iterative (!), and our stories aren’t yet over.

But we’ll close this chapter knowing we are better than we were when we started, and knowing that yes –

We have grown.

On giving thanks – 11.28

On November 28, 2011, I am thankful for my finals week arsenal.

This arsenal is composed of:

  • A delicious meal I prepared to last me the week: spaghetti squash with homemade tomato, garlic, and spinach (moose) meat sauce. One of these days I might just post the recipe I whipped up – I’m no chef, but this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever cooked and is decently healthy – serious brain food for the next week and a half of intense scholarly activities!

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  • Rooibos tea – my latest discovery. I was in desperate need of a pick-me-up but can’t risk drinking caffeine and staying up all night. I stumbled on this caffeine-free goodness in my cupboard and it was just what I needed. This is my new late-night studying go-to!
  • The Gipsy Kings. My ultimate study mojo music – upbeat enough to keep me awake, unintelligible enough that the lyrics don’t usually distract, and some soulful Spanish guitar and flamenco vocals that will nearly rip your heart out on the floor. These dudes are going to get me through this week with a bounce in my step. Here’s one of their more mellow tunes that I love from my head to my toes (its all about returning to the mountains where he was born, which strikes a major chord in my soul):
  • The best study buddy a gal could ask for. Its nearly impossible to be stressed out with this happy face in your lap:

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What are you thankful for?

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(See all posts on giving thanks here.)

On year 1.

I’ve just completed my first (academic) year of graduate school, and I did – and learned – a few things. Some of them are listed here:

I moved into my first married home in Carrboro, North Carolina with my new husband – where I learned the importance of compromise, having a bathroom with double vanities, and having someone who will cook you breakfast in the morning:

Our home.

I went to the North Carolina State Fair – where I learned the great lengths that Americans (rather, North Carolinians) will go to in order to make their food as unhealthy as possible, and that I’m really just an overgrown child (good things my friends are, too.)

Big kids, playing at the fair. Photo credit: stolen from Linnea Warren's Facebook.

I started working in the Office of Global Health at UNC – where I learned about the larger context in which public health exists, met some amazing people, and challenged myself to keep my perspective focused on what happens outside the classroom.

Office of Global Health Staff

I took a break, went to Idaho, and learned how to ski:

Skiing in McCall

I explored Central America – where I challenged my assumptions about medical aid and was exposed to a new side of rural poverty.

Kitchen in a campesina home.

I became a grad student, a public health student, and a HBHE – where I learned how to use (and hate) SAS, rigorously critique scientific literature in the behavioral sciences, collect and analyze qualitative data, and develop massive grant proposals for international development projects worldwide. I developed a social marketing campaign for bed net use in Papua New Guinea to combat malaria and a four-pronged approach to eradicate sexual violence in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I learned about racial disparities for HIV/AIDS in the US and how the collapse of civil society impacted the epidemic in Ukraine, I learned about the resilience of US soldiers in the Armed Forces, and I learned about ways to achieve improvements in public health outcomes through the vehicle of nonprofits. I learned a lot of other stuff too.

The place where I learned a bunch of stuff.

It feels good to invest in myself and my learning again. After a lot of uncertainty over the years about my place in the world, it feels good to have discovered an outlet for my passion. I’ve grown personally and professionally and know I’ll go back to the workforce next year (hopefully?) re-energized, with new skills, and a renewed sense of purpose. Oh…and I’ve had a lot of fun, too.

For these things, I’m grateful.

Thanks, year 1!

My friends. On the beach. Photo credit: stolen from Caitlin Kleibor's Facebook.

On the boring details.

The Destination:

Tomorrow morning I will fly to Miami, then on to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. From there, a bus will take us south to Choluteca, then another east to El Corpus. The roads will be windy and bumpy, it will be 100 degrees or hotter, and I’ll probably have a chicken or someone’s baby in my lap.

The Project:

I’m working with a project called the Honduran Health Alliance (HHA). HHA’s mission is:

To collaborate with local communities in order to provide annual cervical cancer screenings, give health education charlas, and provide family planning resources.”

In summer 2011, our group (consisting of myself and a number of UNC medical students and attendings) will travel to small villages throughout southern Honduras where the extent of the existing healthcare system is lay health advisers and nurses with minimal training. We’ll provide health education workshops, cervical cancer screenings (pap smears), and family planning services.

The Trip:

This week’s goals are three-fold:

  1. To coordinate logistics for the summer and meet with the local health promoters to determine a strategy the summer’s project. I respect this program because of it’s community-driven nature, and these meetings will be crucial to ensure that our project is meeting community needs and not our own agenda.
  2. To conduct qualitative research for my colleague’s master’s paper. She is attempting to answer the question, “how can we increase access to HHA’s services to more at-risk women?” We will conduct focus groups and in-depth interviews with health promoters, women who have attended clinic, and women who have not, in order to determine barriers and determine the way forward that will expand our services to the women who need it most.
  3. To hang out. To become familiar. To soak it in. It can be tough to enter into a new community and build relationships and trust in a limited amount of time. By traveling this week with someone who has worked in these communities before, I hope to connect and make some headway on that front before jumping in next June.

And now, to sleep. See you in Honduras!