While overseas on a global health study abroad program, Chase Brightwell, ’15, was prepared to encounter poverty, a lack of resources, and poor sanitation. What ended up taking him by surprise, though, was the depth of resilience of the people facing these issues.
“People were finding creative ways to get around [their problems],” he says. “I was awed by the ways people had found to survive in environments like that.”
This past fall, Brightwell participated in a comparative, experiential learning-based program, Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care, organized by SIT Study Abroad. Over the course of the semester, he and other students from around the U.S. ventured to Washington, D.C.; Delhi, India; and Hanoi, Vietnam, before spending the final days of the program in Cape Town, South Africa, at the time of Nelson Mandela's death.
For Brightwell, who is a Boatwright Scholar and a double major in journalism and healthcare and society, the SIT program was a chance to expand his horizons.
“There’s a giant world out there, and to only see the parts I’m from, it doesn’t seem like I’m seeing the whole picture,” he says. “I thought it would open my eyes to parts of the world I didn’t know about.”
It did. Through classes such as Globalization and Health, and Health, Culture, and Community, Brightwell and his classmates were introduced to the different ways that peoples and nations around the globe approach healthcare — and had the opportunity to witness those differences firsthand.
The ability for students to view issues up close and personal comes from SIT’s unique curriculum design, which in Brightwell’s program included site visits to informal communities; interaction with nonprofit groups like South Africa’s Social Justice Coalition and Sulabh International (an organization that works to provide toilets and other sanitation equipment to overcrowded areas); and homestays.
For Brightwell, the homestays offered a more in-depth look at how day-to-day life functions in areas of the world where resources are often less available and the present is still deeply affected by the past. One in particular stood out: he spent two weeks in Zwelethemba, a South African township that was a center of African National Congress (ANC) organization during the struggle against apartheid. While there, he lived with an older woman who had survived a terrorist attack, her husband, and their grandson.
“A lot of firsthand knowledge comes from living the way we were living,” Brightwell reflects.
Although Brightwell sees his future as lying more in the public health sphere — he’s considering the possibility of a master’s in public health — his journalism background helped him process what he was seeing and learning through writing, as he kept both a journal and a blog that friends and family back home could follow.
One experience with which he grappled throughout the program was that of being a privileged outsider in marginalized areas.
“While it was amazing to have the opportunity to travel and study in all these places, it’s not something everyone gets to do. It’s a blessing and an absolute privilege. ... Trying to be very sensitive and very intentional about what we were learning, how we were learning about it, and who that learning was affecting — that was the most difficult thing,” he says.
But at the end of the day, that heightened awareness of daily reality in these communities and countries was one of the greatest lessons the program had to offer, and it opened his eyes to some of the practical considerations of health work abroad.
“Programs such as these, as far as going somewhere with a group instead of living on a college campus, provide a very unique opportunity,” he says. “[They] let you go and really experience the place you’re actually living in."