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Finalist | Marie Salem 
"The Volunteer"



IES Abroad Program: Buenos Aires - Latin American Societies & Cultures
College / University: University of California Berkeley, Class of 2018
Major: Health Studies 
Hometown: Santa Monica, California 


Growing up, my parents provided my brother and I with many resources to academically and socially thrive—except they had one rule for us: our path must ultimately help people in some way. Combining my investigative and social passions, I came to study public health, with a focus on maternal health and child malnutrition. In my eyes, malnutrition is one of the direst inequalities we as a world and society must tackle. I believe this focus is critical because nutrition status at a young age impacts future growth, cognitive development, disease risk, mental health, and life quality of the children’s later lives. Despite Argentina’s rich social justice culture and the opportunity to strengthen my Spanish, Argentina’s public health system also called me to study abroad there. Unlike the U.S., Argentina has a universal health care option available to anyone, however, I was still aware that 22% of children are malnourished and the exclusive breastfeeding rate is low at only 33%. The supply of health care but lack of distribution contributed to my desire to volunteer with Fundación CONIN.

As a Global Poverty and Practice Minor, my challenge is to critically analyze all poverty solutions by looking at if the community has a large enough voice, asking if this is a “bandaid” or sustainable solution, or determining if this solution intensified a different problem; however, these complex analyses became frustrating and exhausting to me. I was stuck in a stalemate because each resolution we discussed in GPP or public health classes, had flaws or could do more harm than help, and the passion that led me to combine my public health and global poverty work was slowly being taken over by feelings of hopelessness and defeat. However, despite this stalemate, I went into my study abroad experience with an open mind, and was excited to engage in global poverty work from a perspective outside the classroom.

During my semester abroad to Buenos Aires, Argentina in Spring 2017, I participated in IES Abroad Service Learning and chose Fundación CONIN as my organization to volunteer with weekly. Fundación CONIN is a non-profit that aims to reduce malnutrition in the slums of Buenos Aires by offering free services to mothers and their children. According to the organization, everyone in the villa qualifies socially for these services because of income, employment status, or number of people in the family, but over half of the children also qualify nutritionally because of their malnutrition status. These services include appointments with a pediatrician, social worker, nutritionist, and psychologist, cooking and nutrition education classes, day care for the children during these classes, and free food bags and health supplements. I was thoroughly impressed with the organization, care, compassion, and connection the women who worked at the organization had with women who were being “served” at the organization. I quickly learned that this was a mutual relationship, and that all these women were deeply united.

My work here truly pushed me out of my comfort zone as I rode the bus every Wednesday morning for an hour from a secure, privileged metropolitan area, to an immensely poor, and neglected slum, where I entered the organization as an outsider, and had to communicate solely in Spanish. During the beginning weeks of volunteering when my Spanish was still limited and I was unfamiliar with the structure of the organization, my jobs mostly consisted of packing food bags, organizing the office, or sorting donations. I was very intrigued by the services CONIN offered to the women and wanted to be working directly with the mothers, helping with breastfeeding and cooking education; however, I quickly understood I was here at this organization to help in any way possible. I was here not to gain my own experience—although this also occurred—or impose my “knowledge,” but to simply help wherever I was needed! This is where I think changing the world began for me. This organization needed small volunteer help with the simplest of jobs, and I was able to put my selfish desires and public health interests aside, to just simply help. In addition, as my semester continued, I was able to be more involved in the direct services. I assisted with breastfeeding, vaccine, nutrition, and cooking education, and reviewed the nutritional status of the children to determine if the children were underweight, overweight, or stunted.

As my Spanish improved and I became more familiar with everyone, I began to build my own connection with the workers, mothers, and the children. To me, this was another huge focus of my greater aspiration to change the world through public health. Without the trust, communication, and participation amongst workers and the families being served, the entire organization and goal to decrease inequalities would fall apart. This trust between a non-governmental organization, and impoverished communities will allow more people to be served, spread more awareness of the accessibility of the services, give the communities a larger voice in future actions, and dismantle the idea that impoverished communities cannot organize or be active themselves. By allowing the mothers to lead in the organization and just helping where I was needed as an outsider, I believe I helped change the world through social organizing in many ways.

While abroad, I often thought back to the times at Berkeley when I was battling that “frustration bump”, feeling that each solution created another problem. My Argentinian experience, however, has brought me peace and an understanding that although no solution or effort put forward will be perfect or solve the entire problem, if I commit my time, work, and career to decreasing disparities, I will be changing the world in some way. Moreover, I came to realize that the low-income minority populations I wish to serve don’t have the privilege to become frustrated and give up on dealing with the inequalities they face, and therefore, I should not have that privilege either.

In this current political climate in which minorities, people of low socioeconomic status, and women have a subordinate voice, there is no time to be frustrated and stuck in a stalemate simply because of critical analysis. More than ever, I am passionate and dedicated to standing up against the current political state that is not supporting minority and low-income groups, and is focused on promoting individualism rather than solidarity and collaboration. I am proud to say that this drive and perseverance to change the world is immensely accredited to my experience abroad. Without the work I did with Fundación CONIN, my host family, and learning about Argentinian culture, I would not value community organizing, realize I should help wherever I am needed, and be motivated to continue to work with impoverished communities as much.

To put to action the lessons I have learned abroad and my dedication to underserved populations, I will continue my public health nutrition focus in academia, my work at a community health non-profit in Oakland, and my research in Latin America. I have applied to purse my Masters of Public Health in hopes of dismantling power structures and health inequalities, but will apply for fellowships in Latin America if not accepted. I would like to continue my Child Development in Latin America research I currently do with my professor, but working with the direct research teams through fellowships in Mexico, Colombia, or Chile. With all these future options, I know I will carry with me the lessons IES Abroad Argentina has taught me in order to change the world.

Feeling inspired? Meet all of our 2017 Global Citizen of the Year Finalists and Winner, and learn more about this Award.