Q&A with Ian Dale, MPH Student in Global Health
We at Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Ian Dale about his professional experience before Gillings, his work as a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellow, his MPH practicum with Colectivo Amigos Contra el SIDA, and why he chose Gillings.
What was your background before enrolling in the MPH program?
My academic background started out far from public health. I got a B.A. in philosophy from UNC, and even though I spent most of my time during my undergrad years only a couple of blocks from Gillings, I didn’t know any public health students and really knew nothing at all about the School of Public Health. My vague aspiration was to become a professor, but as I approached graduation, I realized that as much as I valued – and still value – the liberal arts, I wanted to enrich that background with experiences beyond the confines of academia. After graduating, I worked for a few years in the public school system in my hometown of Boone, NC before being accepted to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama as part of the Teaching English, Leadership, and Life Skills program.
During my first two years in Panama, I lived in El Peñón, a rural community in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé province that I’m elated to have called home. My primary assignment placed me in a K-12 school that drew students from a swath of the surrounding communities. Though I spent much of my time in classrooms collaborating with English teachers, part of my program’s remit included sexual health and HIV education. This was my first exposure to community-based public health work. In partnership with school administration, we organized basic sexual health workshops for students at my school and one nearby. After this, I was recruited to extend my Peace Corps service for a third year as regional coordinator in the neighboring Veraguas province. Essentially, I served as the point person between the province’s Peace Corps Volunteers, government agencies, and national Peace Corps staff, a role that, I’m grateful to say, called for significant relationship-building with local community partners.
Here again I gained a bit more exposure to public health practice. Since our WaSH program was seeking to place Volunteers in the province for the first time, I formed contacts with the regional Ministry of Health to begin identifying potential host communities, which I would visit to conduct an initial water and sanitation needs assessment. Veraguas is a culturally, socially, and environmentally varied region, and it was really while carrying out these community needs assessments that I began to appreciate the scope of public health as an approach that seeks to redress these multiple drivers of health inequities, like drinking water access. Knowing that I wanted to apply to graduate school once I returned to the United States, an MPH seemed like the perfect fit to layer formal, technical skills over what had been several years of fieldwork and intercultural learning.
Can you tell us about your work as a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellow?
Sure! Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) is a U.S. Department of Education-funded program whose objective is to support language training for future professionals specializing in a world region. My FLAS language is Portuguese, and my area studies focus is the Americas region, so my FLAS is sponsored through the wonderful folks at UNC’s Institute for the Study of the Americas. The fellowship’s overall structure requires one communication-intensive language course and one qualifying area studies course each semester, which for me can be any class whose content or culminating project is tailored to the Americas. For example, last spring semester, I (along with my talented Global Health classmates Christina Perez and Alaa Hammouda) drafted a hypothetical Colombia-based refugee mental health program plan as part of our required Global Health coursework. Outside of Gillings, I’ve also taken graduate-level coursework to meet this component of the fellowship, such as the excellent Migration and Labor Rights course taught by Dr. Angela Steusse through the Global Studies MA program. UNC’s Portuguese department has been an extremely welcoming and accommodating place to learn as I’ve passed through my language milestones.
For anyone who’s wondering, I didn’t speak any Portuguese before applying for the FLAS. Graduate students are allowed to apply to study a language at a beginner level so long as they speak another language in the relevant world region – so in my case, Spanish. Language learning was a critical piece of my service in Panama, certainly for my professional capacity for community-based work but, perhaps more importantly, in shaping my fledgling practice of cultural humility. There is a characteristic mixture of frustration, progress, embarrassment, humor, and genuine human connection that comes along with language learning – one which, at least for me, offers a template for other forms of relational learning. I feel grateful for the opportunity that FLAS has afforded me to continue to explore language skills complementary to my global health training while developing a measure of regional specialization on public health issues most important in the Americas.
For any students interested in learning more about FLAS, please feel free to contact me!
Will you tell us about your role with the Carolina Climate and Health Alliance?
I’m excited to share more about this group here! Carolina Climate and Health Alliance (CCHA) is a Gillings-based student organization founded last year by a group of master’s students interested in exploring – and taking action at – the intersections between climate change and health. Having observed climatic impacts on rural communities I worked with in Panama, especially on drinking water availability and staple crop production, I was interested in connecting with and learning from students with similar interests.
The group’s vision has begun to coalesce around advocacy and local service events. Among other activities, we supported the Museum of Life and Science’s urban heat mapping project last summer, which collected localized temperature data for neighborhoods in Raleigh and Durham. We wrote a letter to the MPH Core faculty proposing greater inclusion of materials related to climate change and health in the Core curriculum. And last fall, CCHA organized a pumpkin carving event outside the atrium to promote awareness about environmentally damaging energy practices in North Carolina.
More events to come this spring! Please reach out if you’re interested in becoming a member or receiving information through our Teams channel. It’s a really dynamic group of people drawn from across Gillings, and as a relatively new organization, there’s a ton of opportunities to leave a mark on the group’s future direction.
Can you tell us about your MPH practicum?
Definitely! My practicum was hosted by Colectivo Amigos Contra el SIDA, or CAS, a Guatemalan NGO that provides clinical sexual health services, community health outreach, and social advocacy for gay and bisexual men, and other men who have sex with men. I was affiliated with a vibrant and longstanding research partnership between CAS and my Gillings faculty advisor, Dr. Clare Barrington, who have recently been examining clients’ experiences of stigma and perspectives on HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Until recently, CAS was the only organization in Guatemala providing PrEP, doing so at no cost to users. My primary role was to analyze qualitative and quantitative data gathered in an earlier phase of the research project, mostly related to awareness and uptake of PrEP among CAS’s clinical population. We then presented these results to CAS leadership and clinical staff to better inform their efforts to lower barriers to PrEP access, including stigma. To me, this organizational dedication to research is a testament to CAS’s vision, and unique among community-based organizations that I’m familiar with. Since formally finishing my practicum, I’ve continued to contribute to the project’s final phase, which is gathering formative mixed methods data about the implementation of a mobile app to further facilitate PrEP services at CAS.
What does “global health” mean to you?
So many of my classmates have offered such thoughtful, insightful answers to this question in prior newsletter interviews, I’m not sure what, if anything, I can add. But here goes; I’ll try not to throw in the proverbial kitchen sink. To me, global health means first acknowledging our common humanity – as members of local communities, as occupants of an interconnected natural environment, as subjects of globalized economic systems, and as actors in long and interwoven social histories, many of which have and continue to oppress our fellow human beings. In recognition of these facts, I see global health as an aspiration, a call to exercise our capacities in service of – and in partnership with – those who, for reasons of circumstance or history, are unable live healthy and flourishing lives. I suppose that, for me, global health is less a particular set of practices than a constellation of values that guide our efforts to ensure that good health and quality healthcare is not contingent upon where or when someone is born.
What drew you to the Gillings School of Global Public Health?
There were several decisive factors. I first visited Gillings for an admitted students’ day in early March 2020, just as the pandemic first surged along the East Coast. It was the only in-person visit I would be able take, but I doubt a visit elsewhere would have persuaded me. I quickly found Gillings to be a congenial place and the faculty I met to be most welcoming. I particularly appreciated Dr. Suzanne Maman for setting up meetings with potential advisors and a PhD student with a similar professional background. Not only did this help me answer questions about the MPH program, it made me feel like a colleague in the Gillings community. Aside from being impressed by this reception, affordability and location were my other important considerations. As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to receive funding through FLAS – funding that complemented my goals for the MPH program. Even without this, Gillings’ MPH cost profile compared favorably to other programs I applied to. And as a North Carolina native (and UNC alum) coming off of several years living abroad, I wasn’t especially eager to move somewhere far from my family and friends, several of whom still live in Chapel Hill and were great sources of social support during my first (all-virtual) year of the MPH.
What is your dream job?
Can I plead to be determined? Right now, I couldn’t specify any singular dream job. What I probably can articulate are a few features that I hope to find in a dream job. I tend to be mission-driven in my professional life, so ideally, I’d like to work on behalf of an organization or project that shares my vision of global health as driven by partnership, compassion, and sustainability. I’d hope to utilize my language skills, whether based in the United States or in Latin America. I take a lot of satisfaction and energy from being of service to people, and I’d like to work in a capacity that would allow me to spent part of my time “in the field,” building trust and maintaining relationships.
Do you have a New Years’ Resolution you’d like to share?
I haven’t made a formal New Years’ Resolution for a few years now, mostly because of my dreadful track record in sticking to them. Still, come to think of it, the past couple of years I have tried to kick off the new year with some sort of guiding theme. These never really carry the intention of forming habits, mostly just focusing on an emotional valence throughout the year. Last year’s was gratitude, and this year I’ve recently settled on kindness – to both myself and others. Whether it’s the grind of the pandemic or some other stressful burden, we could all probably grant ourselves and others an extra dose of patience and grace. Maybe it’s corny, but that’s how I’d like to orient myself in 2022.