July 19, 2016

2014 MPH Graduate Fulfills Peace Corps Dream in Africa

Kaitlin at Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony in Botswana

Kaitlin Fitzpatrick at Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony in Botswana

A year and a half ago, Kaitlin Fitzpatrick had just finished her final project for her MPH, for which she developed and implemented a plan for analyzing the effectiveness of the Nabholz Construction’s employee wellness program.

Today Kaitlin is a Peace Corps volunteer, using the skills she honed during her UAMS COPH capstone to help a village in Botswana, a small African nation that straddles the Tropic of Capricorn.

Her placement is in a farming village of 20,000 people. It has a clinic, one hospital, another in the works. The district’s health monitoring and evaluation department, where Kaitlin works, is there too. She is a member of the District Health Management Team, helping enter data and compile reports from 35 health facilities. Her aim is to strengthen reporting practices.

“The DHMT is similar to local health departments back in the states,” she said. “It is made up of several departments: health education, monitoring and evaluation, TB, home-based care, and environmental.

“Reporting in Botswana has a lot of room for improvement. Many health facilities may not report, or reporting on time is another big issue. Complete and accurate reports is another area that our department is currently working on.

“I am here to help (however I can and within my power) to get reporting in our district to the government standards. Sometimes it’s as easy as an organization process in the office or having to re-advise health facility staff on certain reports for accuracy—which becomes difficult as some of these facilities and personnel can be several hours away.”

Without much public health work experience on her resume, Kaitlin had questioned her ability to work in a developing country. That was not the case.

Kaitlin with co-worker in Botswana

Kaitlin with co-worker in Botswana

“During my preceptorship I was able to have experience in analyzing data and evaluation of a wellness program,” Kaitlin said. “This has helped when working in the monitoring and evaluation department in Botswana. Being able to look at data, compare the data, evaluate the data and base certain projects on the results where needed, and so on.”

She describes being part of the team serving her village’s health district as “empowering,” sees working with limited resources as opportunities for creative problem solving, and finds the combination of office work and community work to be ideal.

“Someone once told me that as a public health person I wouldn’t be able to be ‘on the ground’ doing field work, that I would be most likely in an office aggregating data (which I am) and developing programs rather than implementing,” she said. “However, I’ve known that to be the opposite. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I get to do both! I am in the office part of the time (preparing) and then taking what my colleagues and I have developed and implement it ‘on the ground.’ I am getting the best of both worlds, and the skills to go with them.”

Kaitlin is the only Peace Corps volunteer in her village, which she cannot name for security reasons. But the village has had three other volunteers in the past. She says the villagers welcomed her with open arms.

“My village is a beautiful place with beautiful people. I absolutely love the people in Botswana. They are community- and family-oriented like I’ve never seen. And it’s powerful!”

She lives alone in a three-house compound, where her host mother also lives. She gets around by bicycle if it is not too hot or rainy, in which case she’ll use a taxi, the main form of local transportation. Her spare time is taken up with laundry, an all-day task (“Washing machines and dryers are not a thing, so everything is scrubbed by hand.”) and cleaning (“Botswana is in the desert so everything is dusty, all the time!”). The main food staples are sorghum and the morphane worm, which is actually a caterpillar that is both a dietary mainstay and delicacy in southern Africa.  As of this writing, Kaitlin has not yet tasted this delicacy.

She finds time to relax, go for a run, as well as learn Setswana, which is one of two national languages there (other is English), as well as Kalanga, another spoken in her village.

In her off time or as her regular job permits, Kaitlin also involves herself in several side projects at the local senior secondary (high school) and clinic.

At the school, she works with a young mothers club and a teen peer counselor club. They tackle HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy and high school dropout rates. March was Botswana’s Youth against AIDS Month, and Kaitlin helped the peer counseling club put on a play about HIV prevention.

Pregnancy is a problem there affecting girls as young as junior high.

“Just like in Arkansas, there are high percentages of teenage pregnancy, and the majority drop out of school. So the club is helping in reduction of teen pregnancies and dropout rates, which also helps reduce the number of HIV-positive youth.”

Another project is with the Mapping Club at the secondary school. Its goal is accurate tracking of which houses in the village have been sprayed inside for mosquitoes. Botswana is on the verge of the elimination stage for malaria, and indoor spraying along with mosquito nets are critical.

“We are using Open Street Map to create a base map for our village. Once that is completed, I will be working with the head of malaria at the DHMT office where we will upload it to GIS. From there, when the Indoor Residual Spraying team goes out into our district they will be able to bring back coordinates and place them into the system, allowing them to see exactly which houses were sprayed, which were missed and where they need to conduct follow-up.

“Zika virus has also been on our radar as it’s beginning to spread, and this same idea can be used to track cases and to make on-the-ground follow-up easier and more reliable.”

Kaitlin’s desire to be a Peace Corps volunteer was kindled when she was still in high school in Van Buren, Ark. The summer after her senior year, she visited her sister, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Macedonia.

“I loved the life she was living and wanted the same experience by helping others. I remember sitting in a meeting with several volunteers talking about HIV status in their communities—in Europe. Being a young student fresh out of high school, I had the stereotype that HIV/AIDS was only in Africa. I knew then I had a lot to learn and wanted to be a part of this mission. I began my college studies with this in mind.”

Summers while in college and graduate school were filled with travels to Asia and Europe that included a stint at an organic farm start-up in Spain.

“As I traveled and learned new cultures, I fell more and more in love with the Peace Corps mission,” Kaitlin said. “The idea that they place you based on your skills and degree while gaining experience internationally was very attractive.”

She recommends the Peace Corps to public health graduates interested in global health or in working internationally.

“This is a great firsthand experience and really tests you, if you want to continue work globally. If you want to get hands-deep in public health work and learn new skills along the way, this is for you! It teaches patience, to be creative, and to work with others who have different backgrounds than yourself.”

But she also offers this advice:

“If this is something you are thinking about, you have to prepare mentally. It’s 27 months of your life to serve in another country, probably with limited access to the Internet, electricity and running water, as well as limited access to keeping up with family and friends back home. But like they say ‘It’s the toughest job you will ever love.’”

For Kaitlin, being a Peace Corps volunteer is the fulfillment of one of her biggest goals. It is early yet to know what she will do afterwards, but it likely will be in global public health. For now, she is focused on that village in Botswana.

“If I make a difference in one person, then my time here was worth it,” Kaitlin said. “Sharing the skills and knowledge I have in a way that betters the people here in Botswana would be my biggest goal. But, I have a feeling I will be taking away more than what I came with.”

Internet can be slow between the US and Kaitlin’s village, but she says: “Feel free to contact me with any questions.” Her email address is kaitlinfitzpatrick08@gmail.com.