Public Health Abroad: Thoughts on Global Citizenship from Marie Salem

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Marie Salem in Argentina

As a volunteer with a maternal and child health organization in Argentina, Marie Salem (Buenos Aires - Latin American Societies & Culture, Spring 2017 | University of California - Berkeley) recalls being stretched out of her comfort zone.

Every week during her study abroad program, Marie left the comfort of her homestay and classroom, and provided an extra set of hands to Fundación CONIN in a low-income community.

As a Global Citizen of the Year finalist, Marie shared how her volunteer work reinforced her commitment to public health through community organizing.

We caught up with Marie to hear how her study abroad experience in Argentina still resonates with the work she does today.

IES Abroad: The theme of the 2019 Global Citizen of the Year application is all about finding your place in the world. How did studying abroad help you find yours?

Marie Salem (MS): I think in a couple ways, it gave me a realization or helped me find my place. I was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I really liked the culture of Argentina, the area in general, and specifically, the language.

The other way it helped me find my place is it's the first time that I worked, specifically, in a slum at a maternal child center for nutrition and health. I have worked in nutrition before. I've worked with children before, and I've worked with mothers. But this is the first time that I've worked solely with mothers and the maternal child health center. I learned that I really loved this, and since then, that's been my focus going forward. So it really helped me find my place, what I want to do, what population I want to work with, and what type of work I want to do.

IES Abroad: You’ve shared before that your parents had one main rule they taught you growing up, that your “path must ultimately help people in some way.” Take us inside how this played a role in deciding to study abroad. Was this part of how you found your program? A goal you came into the experience with? Or did it unfold while you were there?

MS: My parents love to travel. We traveled a lot growing up as kids. And I think studying abroad wasn't as common when they went to college. And there are now a lot more programs. So they definitely encouraged it and thought it'd be a good, challenging opportunity. It's an opportunity they didn't have in college.


I think that their kind of general goal was just, "Whatever you do, ultimately, help someone, help the population, work with a population." I knew that going in to study abroad, so it didn't necessarily help me decide to go abroad, but while abroad, it kind of secured it. In everyday interactions living with a host family and trying to help them in certain ways. Trying to help friends when I was there, and then, specifically, when I worked in the health center, trying to help the struggling population in some capacity.

It's kind of always in the back of my head, to make sure, in some way, in whatever you do, whatever you want to do, that you are trying to help, and that does come from my parents. And then the combination of them wanting us to travel really kind of secured it.

IES Abroad: Something powerful you said in your Global Citizen of the Year personal statement was, “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.” What encourages you to keep going in your work and research instead of giving up in frustration when inequalities persist?

MS: It's hard when you're in the midst of it. It was kind of hard to wake up and travel an hour to go to the health center and see all these frustrating inequalities. It's also frustrating to also see this in our own country, and to then be constantly studying, constantly learning about it in the news.

But I think once you get over the bump that, "Oh yes, it's frustrating, but if I have knowledge of things, if I can work toward these inequalities, it can ultimately have an effect." Once you get over the bump, you know that those frustrations are very minute compared to the frustrations that other people are truly facing.

Another part of me is that I just love the work. I think it's a good type of work, it really interests me, and that pushes me to keep going. To keep doing that work.

IES Abroad: What we really love about your approach to social change is that you emphasize community organizing and building trust between NGOs and communities. Why do you think this approach is a powerful avenue for change?

MS: I think that communities know best. At the end of the day, they know their own community, they know their own population. Whatever you're trying to do, whether work, health, medication, any type of work or any kind of community organizing. That community is living that 24/7. They understand the ins and outs of their population, their community. What they need, what they don't need, what they want. And so leaving them out is just kind of a dishonor to whatever work you're trying to do. If the community is not leading or not involved then maybe you've spent your effort on something they don't really need, or when you spend efforts on something and do it really wrong then you waste resources, time, effort...

It's the idea of democratizing knowledge, meaning that even though certain groups study, like they're academic groups studying or researchers or professionals who know something or work in area, the knowledge should still be spread throughout the community that is being worked with.

IES Abroad: So now, after a year of being named a Global Citizen of the Year finalist and graduating college for undergraduate, what do you reflect on? Is there anything you've been able to learn or practice differently now some time has passed? And then in addition to that, is there anything you would do differently in your study abroad experience if you could?

MS: Looking back on study abroad, it was such a short time with a pretty large impact. I definitely got better at the language, learned more about the culture, lived in a whole different area, made new friends, worked in different settings, all in such a short time. It was kind of a step away from reality because it was so fun, and engaging, and interesting. It's a little interesting to think, "Oh, I had this whole alternative way, alternate life for about half a year in a different place." I look back. I'm like, "Oh. I can relate that back to my study abroad trip," even though it was so short in such a quick time.


I don't have so much as regrets, but I wish always I had made more local friends. I think IES Abroad is a great program where you can be with people and have a group of friends who speak the same language as you, and really connect to you, have the same interests as you. And that helps you in your transition of living in a new country, but also just pushing yourself and your friends, your immediate friend group to meet more local people. 

I would recommend to everyone to always live with a host family. I met a family in that way. But just meeting more of the local people, and pushing yourself to speak Spanish more with those local people is something that I would do maybe a little differently. Or sometimes it was just hard to find ways to do that.

IES Abroad: When you applied for the Global Citizen of the Year award, you were continuing your public health nutrition focus and working at a community health nonprofit in Oakland, and you were planning to pursue research opportunities in Latin America.

MS: I kept pursuing public health nutrition, and I did do research in Latin America on child development that coming year with the same faculty that encouraged me to do health nutrition.

What I realized from that is that research is important to constantly stay updated on the current material regarding public health, the current research of what are best practices for health intervention. But also that taught me that research isn't the only thing that's needed. We also need direct community work or direct services, and that's kind of what I learned at this non-profit called Prevention Institute in Oakland.

That taught me just more about community and getting them involved and the advantages of working directly with the community members or city officials to make action, to get action directly done, and research definitely backed the actions that we did. And so those two experiences together taught me you need research, but you also need direct community work. It's a challenge to figure out how to combine those two overlapping but often siloed fields.

IES Abroad: Tell me a little bit more about your experience with the Prevention Institute. What was your role there?

MS: I work as a researcher for different projects, and my main projects were working with city officials and community members to figure out health prevention plans for their cities.

I did some research looking at other cities or best practices for different successful health interventions. And then we got community members connected to different city officials, then we traded these strategic plans. Some were violence prevention. Some were just general public health prevention. We planned for their city, going forward in the next year: what were the actions that they're going to do? So we helped as guides in that. We were a liaison between the city officials and the government and the community members.

IES Abroad: In your own words, why should future study abroad students care about the world?

MS: Well, I would say the world is so interconnected now...our economy is connected, our market is connected, and all our products are connected. I think that's a reason in itself to care about the world. If you're using a part of the world for your own benefit or just because you're interested in it—I think it's important if you're a user or are interested in it to also care about it and care about the future of it.

But I also think because of that we must be interconnected at this point to deal with political situations, and also the environment, climate change, and how we are all connected in the environment. So if students, going forward, or the generation going forward doesn't necessarily care about the world or care about different people in different countries or doesn't care how everything is interconnected, then we're moving in a backwards direction because we're already interconnected, and have to figure out, going forward, how to solve the issues that we have.

IES Abroad: What advice would you share with others looking to make a difference in the world?

MS: If you want to make a difference in the world, do it, pursue that difference, just be that change because you really care about a place or a population or a setting or a field. But don't necessarily just do it for your own experience. Granted, it is a good experience, and all the things I'm talking about are great experiences, and that's shaped who I am and what I want to do, but my advice is just to be genuine. Do it because you really care, not necessarily for your own benefit.

IES Abroad: What's next for you? You mentioned you've started a master's program. Tell me a little bit about that.

MS: Immediately after undergrad, I was accepted into the Master of Public Health program at UC Berkeley. I'm in the Public Health Nutrition program with a specialty in maternal, child, and adolescent health. I'm mostly doing maternal and child nutrition for under-served or low-income populations. It's a really good program. I'm back at UC Berkeley, so I'm still living in the Bay Area.


It's required to do an internship for the master's program, and I'm completing my internship at the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, so I'm in the maternal, child, and adolescent unit there. I'm working for the county for the summer, and it's a really cool opportunity.

We do program planning and program evaluation for our clinic. We mostly serve low-income populations and help pregnant mothers and children with different health issues or health prevention strategies. So yeah, that's what I'm doing now, and then I'll finish my masters next year, my second year, and I'll be doing a thesis.

I'll be doing some data analysis for an intervention that my faculty advisor did in Bangladesh, which is kind of like a community health education intervention for mothers and children, and it was very successful. The Bangladeshi government is now taking it on for their largest province, which is really exciting. So I'll be doing my thesis on the Bangladeshi government intervention and just preliminary data of if that is working.

So yeah, that's the exciting work that I'll be doing next year. And then, going forward, I would like to do more public health work, and I would like to travel if I can afford it after my master's for the summer. I like working for the county, and it's more domestic work, and that's an opportunity, but I think I'll then try again doing global health work, possibly looking into the Fulbright program.

IES Abroad: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

MS: Advice for study abroad: definitely live with a host family. If there's an opportunity to do a host family, I would definitely do the host family. That is an important part of studying abroad.

Where will you find your place in the world? Read about 6 Ways to Discover Your Global Citizenship While Studying Abroad.

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