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Graduate Student Profile - J.C. Walsh (African Studies and Public Health)

J.C. Walsh J.C. (for Jennifer Christine) Walsh spent the summer of 2002 in Kampala, Uganda, assisting with two projects: One to develop the pilot phase of an HIV prevention program specifically for street kids, the other to create a referral list of services for victims of domestic and sexual violence in Kampala. Her work will provide the internship credits she needs for her master's degree in public health.

This work was preceded by her first field research experience in the summer of 2001, when she did a month-long study with Liberian refugee women in Danane, Ivory Coast. Through interviews with over 100 refugee women, most of whom walked across Liberia to reach safety, she identified patterns of institutionalized violence used by rebel soldiers against government supporters, including sexual slavery, rape, and torture. This research may provide the core of her master's degree in African Studies.

J.C. plans to complete the dual degree by the end of the Fall Quarter so that she can continue with a career in international health that will almost certainly return her to Africa again. Her goal? "To work on projects that combine health and human rights, and that address the very real issue of violence against women in Africa." J.C. admits that she feels very lucky to have discovered one of the keys to staying motivated in this challenging work, "When you are able to help someone who is really in need, it's so rewarding that it outweighs the difficulties you face in trying to do so," she says. "If I can find a way to support myself and still be true to that, to help other people, it will be the best of all possible worlds."

J.C. worries that she might sound like the "stereotypical, young, idealistic, save-the-world kind of person," when in fact she's "just following my heart." Nevertheless, a little girl from Torrance who wanted to be President of the United States has spent much of her grown-up life as the only oberuni, tubabu, muzungu, etc… (white person) in various African settings, with world-saving high on her agenda. Indeed, she took a year-long leave of absence from her studies in 2000 to serve as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Ghana, where she studied public health at the University of Ghana and assisted with various Rotary health projects in Accra.

Her interest in Africa began when her high school French teacher came back from a trip to Mauritania with photos to share. J.C. recalls being fascinated that there was a place where people wore flowing indigo robes, spoke French, Arabic, and other traditional languages at the same time, followed multiple religions, and combined modern culture with traditional beliefs. She remembers wondering why she had never learned more about this place called Africa.

Her social orientation began in college. Studying international relations at George Washington University, J.C. realized right away that she wasn't interested in international business or trade. "I wanted to know why there were millions of people suffering from very basic health problems around the world and few people seemed to know about it." The ethical dilemmas inherent in development didn't exist for J.C. in the area of health. "Everyone has the right to good health, no matter who you are or where you live."

Her interests melded after college during her first job assisting with a USAID breast-feeding promotion project and also helping to produce a radio soap opera for HIV prevention in West Africa. She then left Washington, D.C. to gain international field experience with the Peace Corps in Mali through work as a health educator with a branch of International Planned Parenthood.

Once back home in Southern California to get her bearings and look ahead, J.C. decided to pursue a double master's degree in African Studies and Public Health, focusing on international health. The two programs are closely related. Much of her work in African Studies involves health issues, and Africa is always the focus she chooses for projects in the community health sciences curriculum. A good example is her group's efforts to detail a program on peer-education for HIV prevention in Zimbabwe, for their International Program Planning and Evaluation course.

Based on the advice of a former colleague, J.C. made it an early priority at UCLA to take a class taught by Dr. Joanne Leslie, Adjunct Professor of Public Health, who has spent 20 years working on nutrition projects in Africa. Besides their interests in Africa and health, the two women share an ability to work comfortably among Africans, which Professor Leslie calls "a gift that we're lucky to have rather than a skill we've developed."

She adds that J.C. is unusual in the passion she brings to her work. When J.C. observes the effects of poverty, whether at an Inglewood church (where she works on a nutrition project with Professor Leslie) or in Kampala's slums, "she feels the injustice of it and she feels the pain of it in a way that is not just intellectual and academic but very human," Professor Leslie says. "I've known her long enough to say it's not a passing phase."

J.C.'s long-term goal is to develop programs and policies that will improve women's health in Africa, perhaps for the United Nations or through her own nongovernmental organization. "She's still got a sense that she's going to be able to change the situation dramatically in the course of her own working years," her mentor says. "That's great—I would never try to talk her out of it."

Published in Fall 2002, Graduate Quarterly