Public health major reflects on internship in Ecuador
Moving into adulthood as one transitions from college into the real world is no easy task. As students face down the graduation stage, many find themselves facing questions; “Did I choose the right major?” “Will I be able to find a job?” “Have I made good decisions?” and one that rings through the ears of even the most confident student, “What on earth is my purpose here?”
Audra Wiser, public health major and senior at Charleston Southern University, took the opportunity to grapple with her purpose during summer break of 2022.
Wiser went to Quito, Ecuador, for an internship at a health clinic for eight weeks from June to July. Having completed her minor in Spanish, she wanted to use that minor in collaboration with her personal passion for global health.
Through the program World Endeavors, Wiser was able to find an internship at Clínica Bastet, translating to Bastet Clinic.
Bastet Clinic is dominantly a facility for family mental health care; however, they had a doctor who was working in collaboration with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Public Health to collect data and make recommendations regarding how best to approach and resolve the public health issues that were most impacting the local community.
Wiser was instrumental over the course of these eight weeks in collecting that data and was a primary voice in making those recommendations through the doctor to the ministry.
The journey was not all sunshine and roses, according to Wiser. In fact, shortly after she got there, she received bad news from the United States Embassy in Ecuador; as uprising and protests broke out across the nation of Ecuador, she was rendered unable to begin her internship. Vehicles and tires, among other debris, were set on fire as protestors blocked traffic to speak out against the government’s mistreatment of Ecuador’s Indigenous population.
These protests went on for two weeks, which was much longer than expected, making conditions unsafe for Wiser. She was using public transportation to get to the clinic, which meant she was on the bus for at least an hour every time she went to her internship. For a few days, there was even talk of her having to leave and being unable to complete her internship. “I think it’s just a really important part that I like to share with people because I think it’s a good reminder that traveling and going abroad isn’t just all the pretty pictures that you see on social media,” said Wiser. “There’s so much more, so much that can be really hard and really challenging. That was a big part of the beginning of my trip that was pretty crazy.”
Just as Wiser was approaching the deadline to either leave or begin her internship, the demands of the protesters were satisfied enough that it no longer presented for her a danger. This allowed her to finally begin the work that she felt she was always meant to be doing.
Wiser overcame many obstacles to her time and success in Ecuador. She faced a language barrier, acknowledging that speaking Spanish in real life is very different from speaking it in a classroom. She said it felt like, “I knew nothing.”
“I wanted so badly to just be able to communicate with anyone and everyone, but it just wasn’t there,” she said. “Being a foreigner in another country, you really stick out; people know that you’re a foreigner. It’s different.”
This struggle also came in addition to the sheer culture shock of experiencing such a vastly different routine and way of life. Wiser described it as a somewhat Americanized experience relative to other foreign countries, but still incredibly different. “Their way of life, like, it’s so much more slow-paced than here,” said Wiser. “For example, I would get to the clinic on time and the doctor might not show up for an hour and a half and that was just normal.” She tried very hard to immerse herself into their way of life.
Wiser was able to overcome these struggles and even began to feel quite at home in Ecuador, making her job at the clinic more enjoyable as she pursued her purpose and vision for her life.
At the clinic, Wiser was a community health worker, primarily responsible for going out and speaking with the local people in order to collect health data from a random sample. Due to a large amount of government and police mistrust, Wiser did find it hard to get people to speak to her as they believed her to be associated with the government, but she persevered and found success in her work.
She also had a large role in health education of the local population.
Every week, Wiser would get a new topic to collect data about the health of the community around the clinic. She was able to organize that data and analyze the results, draw conclusions and then make presentations on the topics for the week in order to teach that community each Wednesday about their health.
Wiser was given the chance to educate several members of the community of all ages about topics of their personal health, as well as give them space to ask questions about some more stigmatized topics.
There were several public health issues Wiser was able to pinpoint and address, especially poor nutrition and overconsumption of sugar, as well as issues of gender violence and poor education surrounding the more stigmatized aspects of public health.
This experience gave Wiser invaluable experience in the world of public health, especially global health and learning to customize solutions to the environment she’s in, but also showed her many people’s stories, perspectives and walks of life. “I was able to experience how, like, everything can affect people’s health,” said Wiser.
Wiser witnessed firsthand the intense patriarchy of the Ecuadorian culture and saw how that impacted the health of women. She met people who impacted her in ways she believes she will always remember and was able to impact the lives of those people as well.
She was also given the opportunity to learn a new culture, as well as to teach the people around her pieces of hers. “I loved the experiences I had there,” said Wiser. “I think overall I just felt a sense of adventure and a little bit of freedom.”
Wiser also said that this time gave her a new perspective on her purpose in this world and altered her relationship with the Lord.
“I think my relationship with the Lord grew a lot while I was there because… I was put in such a vulnerable position, a position where I didn’t really know anyone, where things were really challenging and I could feel a little unsafe at times and so ultimately, like, the only person I really had, the only thing I really had to rely on was God,” Wiser said. “It was the only thing I really had that felt secure.”
Wiser felt that the time she spent in Ecuador was an opportunity for her to dive straight into the work God was calling her to do and created her to do. “Like a lot of people, there were a lot of times where I struggled, like ‘what was my purpose? What am I supposed to do? What am I passionate about?’” said Wiser.
She said that her time in Ecuador felt like she was spending every day doing what she loves and living out her purpose. “For one of the first times, I felt like I was living out a calling that God had placed in me and God had been preparing me for. I felt like I had a lot of purpose there.”
“There’s a lot of days where I wish I could go back, but it has also given me a better idea of where I want to go, too. I still don’t know what postgraduation will look like, but I just know where my purpose is and that what I felt in Ecuador is what I want to feel on a regular basis,” she said. “I just know that what I was doing there is what God is calling me to.”
Marissa Thompson is a senior communication major and was a fall 2022 intern with the Office of Marketing & Communication.