In the spring semester of 2020, I was so excited. I was going to London for a couple of weeks, and then, turning around to head to Accra, Ghana for three months for my Public Health internship with the West Africa AIDS Foundation. I researched vaccinations, looked at possible living arrangements, and checked flights to find the best deal. My heart was set on the flight that had a full day layover in Amsterdam, my favorite city! 2020 was going to be my year for travel. Unfortunately, Covid-19 put a giant hitch in my plans.
As was the case around the world, everything shut down. Although my family, friends, and I were safe and healthy, I was pretty disappointed. Luckily, it was an easy process to convert my face-to-face internship to a virtual one. An ideal situation? No. However, I was still determined to meet the challenges of my internship duties head on and with total dedication. When asked if I would write a post about my experience, I mulled over what I would say. I could write about all the incredible ways WAAF works to make healthcare available and affordable to the community and beyond regardless of HIV status. I could discuss all the projects the organization is involved in to help mothers provide the best care for their children or how they go above and beyond to solve issues getting antiretroviral medications during the pandemic. However, anyone can read about that on the website and through the newsletter. Instead, I’ll try to put into words what I learned.
The first lesson I learned was how fortunate I am to have the American healthcare system to some extent. I’m outspoken about all the things wrong with it. However, rarely do I compliment what is right with it. My main internship project with WAAF was to create and disseminate a survey to determine what women in Ghana know about cervical cancer and its screening process. The results showed me with that all the things we do wrong with our healthcare in the US, preventative care and education is something we definitely do right. Three out four Ghanaian women diagnosed with cervical cancer, which is one of the most preventable cancers, will die due to lack of affordable screenings and little to no knowledge about the disease. This project helped me consider a career in advocacy for better preventative care around the world. After all, a healthier population is more productive than a sick population.
The second lesson I learned was to never assume an idea is a bad one, especially when you’re working with a busy organization with a small staff where everyone has multiple duties. Sometimes the simplest idea is the one that is overlooked. It was difficult working 5,000 miles away from the WAAF headquarters. Without being there, I had the challenge of not knowing the workflow of the staff, the technology used, or how tasks were prioritized. I was concerned that suggesting a simple idea would be insulting to the hard-working staff at WAAF. However, I found that by asking questions to find out about the work procedure was the best way to decide which ideas were useful. Sometimes, it takes an outsider looking in to find areas that could be improved. I must admit, working with a team that’s open to suggestions alleviates a lot of anxiety. I realized that when they’re focused on what needs to be done for the next deadline, and there’s always a next deadline, they don’t have the time to contemplate what will or will not streamline their work. It is important in the learning process of an intern to be able to look at how a company works and feel comfortable saying, “I have an idea to make this more efficient for you.”
The third lesson I learned, and perhaps the most important lesson, from my experience with interning at WAAF was if a cause is worth fighting for, you do it tooth and nail but always maintain a sense of humor about life. I watched, Dr. Naa, my supervisor, live on just a few hours of sleep at night so she could edit proposals, after the kids were in bed and then wake up early to attend online meetings at 5 am her time. I know she was tired and, at times, frustrated. Regardless, she always could laugh about the situation. It wasn’t uncommon during our online meetings for the internet to crash on the Ghana side and the team would disappear for a few minutes. When they were back up and running, Paul, the acting CEO, would laugh deeply and heartily about it because what other choice is there? Learning to not take hurdles too seriously that life will throw at you is one of the best lessons I learned as I move forward with my career. I know I’ll experience frustration and anger at times as I enter the public health world since there will always be bureaucracy and red tape. The WAAF/IHCC team approached this with both grit and grace. I will hold that lesson close to my heart as well as my entire internship experience with the West Africa AIDS Foundation.