Ann Pongsakul, ’16, was only supposed to spend one semester abroad. She chose to spend the fall of her junior year in Geneva, Switzerland, to expand her knowledge of global health issues.

But as the semester came to a close, Pongsakul realized she loved Switzerland and wasn’t ready to leave yet. “The beauty really takes you in,” she said, “and there are so many different cultures and languages.” 

Her solution? She applied for and received a prestigious internship at the World Health Organization (WHO), which allowed her to extend her stay.

Pongsakul, a healthcare studies major, chose her first semester program, SIT Geneva, because of the opportunity to  expand her knowledge of global health issues and take courses that weren’t offered at Richmond. “The classes were very interactive, with a lot of field study work at different healthcare organizations,” she said. “We took a week-long excursion to Morocco to learn more about their healthcare system and lived in a rural village for three or four days.”

It was through these class field visits that Pongsakul learned about the WHO’s internship program. After she was accepted, she spent her spring semester in Lausanne, Switzerland. She took French classes at the University of Lausanne, but most of her time was spent at her internship.

“I worked in the Emergency Central Surgical Care program,” Pongsakul said, “and spent the majority of my time assisting them with planning or writing documents.”

During her time with there, the program developed the first resolution on surgery that was passed by the World Health Assembly. “I was able to see the original drafting of the resolution, all the way through to it becoming a documented policy, which was pretty amazing,” she said.

Only Pongsakul didn't just sit by and watch the resolution become policy, she conducted research that played a direct role in analyzing how national healthcare plans incorporated surgery. “It was a complement to passing the resolution on surgery in the World Health Assembly,” she said. “The goal was for the WHO to better understand how to guide countries and help them incorporate surgery into their healthcare systems.”

Though Pongsakul is back in Richmond for her senior year, her work with the research project hasn’t ended. Her paper analyzing national healthcare plans was accepted to the Third World Congress on Integrated Care in Mexico City, and she will travel there in November to share her work.

Pongsakul felt her time in Switzerland allowed her to more clearly define her path, which now includes plans to become a doctor. “Working for the WHO, I learned a lot about politics, how the UN works, and policy, but I realized I would rather work to make a change at the local level,” she said. “Learning about public health and policy issues, going abroad, and conducting research, I found myself heading down a path I didn’t think I would like: primary care and prevention.”

“I would love to become a primary care physician. I think it’s what the world needs right now,” Pongsakul said. But she might not be done with global policy just yet; she hopes to return to Europe before tackling medical school. “If I could find another opportunity with the WHO, that would be awesome,” she said.