From Classroom to Grassroots

SPH student Colleen Dundas stepped 8,000 miles outside her comfort zone to have a powerful, unforgettable experience in a developing nation, thanks to the Global Health Program and the Peace Corps.

Colleen Dungas, with village children from the Chikwina Primary School in Malawi, who she coached in a "Grassroots Soccer" afterschool program. (Photo by Catherine Chirwa)

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 19, 2016) — “Challenging yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and into a world in which you can have an extreme sense of purpose is a powerful experience very few people have had,” said Colleen Dundas, a master of public health student scheduled to graduate in May.

Colleen’s very special experience took place in the sub-Saharan African nation of Malawi, in the beautifully set but very isolated mountainous town of Chikwina, in the Nkhata Bay region. There, as a member of the Peace Corps, she applied her concentration in epidemiology to work with the country’s ministry of health to conduct a malaria indicator survey. She also helped build a maternity ward; develop a program to improve medical data analysis; worked with school children to increase their awareness in preventing malaria and HIV/AID — scourges upon their nation, including among the young — and much more.

“It is not a stress-free endeavor,” she understated of her Peace Corps service, which ran from from March 2013 to April 2015. A written account she made of her stay in Malawi included:

Most of the time, you feel lucky to have coffee and soap, because most of your neighbors do not, and they never complain. Your community teaches you more than you ever thought possible, lessons that breach the confines of your experience and travel with you everywhere you go. After a short time, you stop thinking about how processes differ between your old life and new life. You stop comparing and you just enjoy the simplicity and beauty of where you are.

Colleen calls the combining of the Peace Corps experience with her MPH degree program “the best decision of my life.” The path to her opportunity came through the School of Public Health’s partnership with the Peace Corps and its Masters International (MI) Program, through which MPH students combine their graduate studies with global health field experience, receiving up to nine UAlbany grad credits. (Rockefeller College also has an MI program through its master of public administration.)

The MI process, which requires separate applications to the Peace Corps and a graduate program, was facilitated by SPH's Center for Global Health, and Colleen gives abundant credit for guidance to its co-directors, John Justino and Carol Whittaker. “The Center leverages their partnership with the Peace Corps, and that tremendously facilitates the process to provide support for the student,” said Colleen

She also lauded the Center’s Global Health Seminar. “It’s a requirement for students embarking on any global health endeavor. It invites former global health professionals and students to provide firsthand experience of living abroad and what to expect. They covered topics such as cross-cultural knowledge and skills, health and safety abroad, traveling and adventure opportunities, coping strategies, and more. It provided a platform for making the most of your abroad experience — a great place to start.”

To the future, Colleen looks to her May graduation and then securing a global health position with organizations such as USAID, the World Health Organization, CDC, World Bank, UNICEF and the Peace Corps. She said she would primarily like to work in program management/assistance and/or epidemiology support in the areas of maternal and child health, HIV, female empowerment, and infectious disease.

“Ideally, my role will eventually take me back part-time to Africa, Southeast Asia, or somewhere new such as South America — as long as I am providing assistance in an area of high need and working on a global health issue that interests me, I will be happy.”

Colleen received a bachelor’s in human biology from UAlbany in 2011. Throughout her time in Albany, service has gone hand-in-hand with achievement. She was a research assistant and a residence assistant as an undergrad, and between her bachelor’s and grad study worked with Residential Life to provide students with emergency and disaster training.

“I pretty much bleed purple and gold,” she said. “UAlbany opened up the Peace Corps experience for me, which now opens doors to so many other opportunities. I’ve learned much more than I ever could have given.”

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