It made me realize how vulnerable women and girls are
May 08, 2009
Barbara (Bobbi) Wallace, MPH
Associate director of development for corporations and foundations, UNC Gillings School of Global Health, 2008 present
Peace Corps volunteer, Gwang Yang, Cholla Namdo Province, South Korea, 1975-1977


Bobbi Wallace’s father emigrated from Germany to America before Bobbi was born. Years later, while traveling with his daughter, they went down to a German harbor to watch the boats. When I was a boy, he told her, I came here to dream of traveling somewhere far away.

It has to be genetic, Wallace figures.

Wallace became a “hippie traveler” in the early 1970s, roaming through India and Afghanistan. She has lived and traveled in Europe much of her adult life, but her first extended international “home” was her two years in Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“I was given $75 a month to put aside and enough money to live as a Korean,” Wallace remembers. “I rented a room in an inn, with no heat or running hot water. There were holes where the rats came through.

Bobbi Wallace, left, in South Korea

Bobbi Wallace, left, in South Korea

“My job was to visit people who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and to give sputum tests to those suspected of having it,” Wallace says. “People with TB have to undergo treatment for two years. Most of the drugs used then were aspirin derivatives that were hard on the person’s stomach; for that reason and others, people rarely followed through with taking their medication.”

Wallace said TB often was seen in older people whose immune systems had been compromised, pregnant women and younger people who had moved to the city to take on factory jobs. Time and again, Wallace was struck by how the society’s women and poor were deprived of the help they needed.

Once, a homeless mother came seeking medical help for her sick daughter. Since her mother had no money, the health center sent the girl to a local, unqualified “doctor,” The child died.

There was also a young girl whose face was badly burned. When Wallace and others offered to take her to another town where simple surgery would improve the scarring, the child’s father dismissed the idea, saying “She’s only a girl; why spend time or money on her?”

“My experience in the Peace Corps helped me understand the importance of everyone’s having access to care,” Wallace says. “In particular, it made me realize how vulnerable women and girls are — because poverty makes their lives doubly harsh. It made me want to fight for and empower them.”

Wallace explains, “During my two years in the Peace Corps, I was a public health practitioner without knowing what I was doing. I’d had anthropology and journalism courses, nutrition and microbiology as an undergraduate. I wanted to learn more, and I came to graduate school thinking they would teach me more about diseases.

“Instead, the health behavior and health education program gave me a framework for learning. I don’t think I would have been admitted if I hadn’t had international experience in the Peace Corps, yet I knew I had gaps in my understanding, so I was like a sponge during my courses and fieldwork. It was an exciting and stimulating time.”

View more photographs of Bobbi Wallace’s Peace Corps experience on Flickr.
See other videos featuring Bobbi Wallace at YouTube.

Read Bobbi’s Peace Corps comment 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.

Last updated May 15, 2009