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Peace Corps Offers Glimpse Into Global Health Work

The Peace Corps was begun in 1961 under President Kennedy to "promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower."

For many volunteers, their experience gives shape and purpose to lives and their career decisions. Volunteers immerse themselves in a community overseas -- in one of 76 countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico, South America, Europe, the Pacific Islands, and the Middle East -- for 27 months. They work to provide technical assistance in one of six program areas: education, youth and community development, business and information and communications technology, agriculture, environment, and health.

Erin Stratta (pictured above in Peru), a fourth-year medical student at Loyola University Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine, lived in a small Andean town working for the Peace Corps on public health issues. She shares her experiences with StudentDoc.

Question: Describe your primary program in Peace Corps, and any secondary projects?

Answer: Within Peru, we had three main areas of focus: family health, hygiene, and nutrition. As with many of the volunteers, my projects ended up spanning the gamut, from training volunteer health promoters, to teaching water safety in schools, to helping families grow vegetable gardens and more lucrative guinea pig breeding programs. On a weekly basis, I was this gringa in town that did fun activities in all the schools, supported the local doctor and nurse in the town’s biggest health needs, wandered around admiring people’s new smoke-controlled stoves, and was obviously crazy for going running every morning.

Q: What initially attracted you to serve in Peace Corps?

A: Everyone’s road to Peace Corps is so different; and I think a lot of us would laugh and concede it was a twist of fate or a fortunate happenstance. A lot of us were willing to take a risk and jump into an adventure without many expectations, but several of us had pretty clear goals. Following college graduation, I wanted to do volunteer health work in Latin America for at least a year; really working in public health before I applied for Medical School.

When you look into the fine details of doing this; finances, safety, health care, travel expenses, work counterparts, etc., it can be very difficult to find or organize a legitimate experience. Although I balked at the idea of 27 months, Peace Corps was this very professional organization that offered top-notch training and administrative/economic support for your entire time; it was sort of like the perfect job offer because I knew with the level of commitment came a level of legitimacy in the organization. I wasn’t disappointed, and found that 27 months was not nearly long enough.

Q: What inspired you to go to medical school? Was it Peace Corps, or was Peace Corps part of your planned path to becoming a medical practitioner? A: As mentioned previously, I was pretty set on medical school prior to Peace Corps. I remember studying for and taking my MCAT right after graduation, and about two weeks before I left for Peru. It was stressful, but thank God I did it ahead of time, because all that basic science knowledge went out the window after a few years in the mountains! It was replaced with real practical knowledge and experience, which is what I wanted. That experience also solidified my desire to be a physician, and helped motivate me to get through some difficult years of training. I never wanted to be a doctor; but I had some insightful experiences working with marginalized populations in college, and I slowly realized I wanted to do this ‘helping people’ thing as my career. Medicine was an easy choice because I found the human body fascinating and so basic to everyone’s needs. I was so frustrated and inspired by the fact that small changes in medical care could drastically affect one’s quality of life, and I wanted to be part of that process.

Series on International Health Programs

Next: Peace Corps and Medical School Fourth-year medical student Erin Stratta shares how her Peace Corps service defined her medical school experience.

Is Peace Corps Right for You? A Peace Corps specialist talks about skills, service, and volunteers interested in global health care.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Doctors Without Borders (MSF) attracts both new MDs right out of residency, as well as mid-career and veteran physicians.

International Health Work What draws physicians to pursue international health work and global health care programs.

Why a Career in Global Health? A professor and author advises med students to follow their passion, and there will be a way to engage in global health work.

Back: Global Health Programs For MDs or medical students exploring global health programs, there are a variety of adjustments that must be made.

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