A family history of reaching out to those facing adversity

May 08, 2009
Lucy Siegel
Director of Research Resource Development, Family Health International, Research Triangle Park, N.C. (http://www.fhi.org)
Peace Corps volunteer, Nepal, 1978-1981
UNC master of public health student, health behavior and health education, 1982-1984

Lucy Siegel

Lucy Siegel

“It may sound a little sappy,” Lucy Siegel says, “but I’ve wanted to join the Peace Corps since I was in second grade. My father, Earl Siegel, who was at the Berkeley School of Public Health,* had invited one of his students home for dinner. She was from Africa. This was a time shortly after President Kennedy had started the Peace Corps. I was enthralled by this woman and decided then that I wanted to join. Even being so young, I felt it was important to work with people in less developed countries and assist in whatever ways could help make a difference.”

Siegel joined the Peace Corps just after finishing her undergraduate work at Guilford College, in Greensboro, N.C., and was stationed in Nepal. “I was in a program that focused on women in development,” she says. “It was a fairly open-ended assignment, and each person in my group did something different — but all the projects were focused on women.”

She began by conducting home visits and providing basic maternal and child health education, as well as taking care of critical issues. “There was always an additional opportunity to help educate,” she says. “While I was treating burns, there were discussions about fire safety; when someone needed rehydration, we talked about water sanitation.”

Both the School of Public Health and the Peace Corps improve lives worldwide through multiple strategies – social justice, education, capacity-building, technical assistance and skills transfer.


As she travelled around several villages, “I got the sense that women really wanted to get together,” Siegel says. “We did some informal survey work with the women and their husbands about the possibility of establishing a women’s center. People were enthusiastic and committed to building it if I could get the funding to construct a building and the supplies.”

“My Nepalese counterparts and I were very fortunate to have overwhelming support and enthusiasm about the center,” Siegel says. “The village built the building, and we obtained weaving looms, sewing machines and knitting supplies from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Nepalese government. Nepalese women who were government workers taught the women how to weave, knit and sew. The funds generated helped keep the center going, and in addition, the women who made the products received some funding.”

The Center served about nine villages. Volunteers taught basic literacy in reading, writing and math, kitchen gardening and basic family health education.

Siegel says she will always remember the day on which the men and boys carried in the logs and metal roofing to build the center. “Because there were no roads to the village, long lines of men and boys had to carry the materials from a great distance. The excitement was palpable.”

While still in the Peace Corps, Siegel realized she wanted to learn more about techniques that could be used to bring about positive behavior change. “I was keen to learn more about theories,” she says, “and to understand community organization and empowerment. I felt I had practical experience, and I wanted to learn from others who had lots more experience and knowledge.”

That’s what brought her to the UNC School of Public Health.

Siegel says the goals of the Peace Corps and the School are very similar. “Both strive to improve lives worldwide through multiple strategies — social justice, education, capacity-building, technical assistance and skills transfer,” she says.

It is essential for public health students to engage in this type of work, she says. “We all live on the same planet, but we have not all had the same opportunities. It is critical for students to become aware of the challenges, hardships and limitations that affect millions and millions of people worldwide. It is also important for them to identify ways in which they can make meaningful contributions to help others.”

Siegel began her career with the desire to make contributions that would improve the lives of individuals and — through programs, policy and education — the lives of whole populations. Her current role as director of research resource development for Family Health International, a nonprofit organization based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., allows her to continue having a positive impact on many people around the world.

“I was brought up in a family that emphasized the importance of actively lending a hand to people who are facing adversity,” Siegel says. “Those are values that continued to develop during my work in the Peace Corps and at UNC, values that I still hold dear today.”

*Not long after, Earl Siegel, MD, MPH, came to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he chaired the public health school’s Department of Maternal and Child Health from 1967 to 1975.

View Peace Corps photographs on Flickr.
See videos about the Peace Corps / public health connection at YouTube.

Join our Peace Corps discussion on LinkedIn.


Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit www.sph.unc.edu/cph.