June 17, 2016

Two UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health alumni and one current student recently shared their stories with the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases. Their education at the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center and in the Gillings School’s departments of maternal and child health and environmental sciences and engineering helped pave the way for the impact they are making in global and local health.

A game-changing experience

Osborn Kwena

Osborn Kwena

Osborn Kwena, MPH, credits his education at the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center and UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health with preparing him for a career in water, sanitation and hygiene.

Growing up in Busia, Kenya, Kwena never saw himself coming to the United States, let alone graduating from one of the top American graduate schools for public health. Yet, his first job at Innovations for Poverty Action, a nonprofit research organization that provides water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) interventions in rural areas, opened his eyes to the disproportionate access to clean water in his country.

“I was privileged to grow up in an environment where we had running tap water and proper sewerage facilities,” Kwena says. “I had heard that was not the case everywhere in Kenya. But hearing this and seeing this are very different. Working at Innovations for Poverty Action, which required traveling and traversing the rural areas of Kenya, was an eye-opening experience. It allowed me to see firsthand the poverty and the gaps – lack of access to safe and clean drinking water, inadequate sanitation and open defecation practices in these communities.”

After working for the organization for four years, Kwena’s desire to pursue a career in public health solidified. Two UNC students who worked with him told him about the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center. Funded by the Rotary Foundation, the center is one of six worldwide – the only one in North America and the only one jointly supported by two universities. Through the Rotary Peace Fellowship Program, Rotarians and the Center select up to 10 fellows each year who aim to improve world peace and promote conflict resolution in their future careers.

In addition to classes and a core curriculum in peace and conflict resolution for all fellows at both universities, the fellows also earn a master’s degree at either Duke or UNC. Kwena applied to the fellowship and the UNC Gillings School’s Department of Environmental Science and Engineering. He was accepted and headed to Chapel Hill.

Listen to interviews with the Class of 2016 Peace Fellows, as told to Gabriel Maisonnave, a Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Fellow and  master’s student at the UNC School of Media and Journalism.

Dr. Peggy Bentley

Dr. Peggy Bentley

“The Rotary Peace Fellowship Program, administered through the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, brings superb students to UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health,” says Peggy Bentley, PhD, UNC faculty director of the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, associate dean for global health in the Gillings School and associate director for education at the UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases.

“Students apply to the degree program that best fits their experience and career trajectory,” Bentley says. “Since its inception 13 years ago, we’ve had Rotary Peace Fellows completing their Master of Public Health degrees in environmental sciences and engineering, health behavior, public health leadership, and maternal and child health. Although each department provides the knowledge, theory, skills and methods that are appropriate to their disciplines, all of the students benefit from the integration of ‘global and local’ public health in the curriculum, which is one of the cornerstones of our educational philosophy.”

Bentley also is the Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition at the Gillings School and a fellow at UNC’s Carolina Population Center.

In addition to his classes, Kwena was part of the Water Institute at UNC, housed at the Gillings School, where he worked closely with Jonny Crocker, PhD, Gillings School alumnus and postdoctoral fellow, and Jamie Bartram, PhD, Water Institute director, Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering and Kwena’s adviser, on community-led total sanitation project evaluation being carried out in Kenya.

Kwena graduated in May and hopes to return to Kenya in two years to advise local organizations and government officials developing water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) policies.

“This experience has been a game-changer for me,” Kwena says. “The Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center is an amazing program because it provides the opportunity to experience a new level of consciousness in terms of peace and conflict management. I now feel like I have the platform of skills, attitude and connections to help change the world. You need to be able to see good to do good. Kenya doesn’t have leaders that have seen good WaSH systems. I hope to be their eyes.”

The magic of Rotary

Natsuko Sawaya, with infant

Natsuko Sawaya

Natsuko Sawaya, master’s student in maternal and child health at the Gillings School, spent time working with children in Dakar, Senegal, before applying to the Rotary Peace Fellowship Program.

The words “international relations” usually bring to mind images of improving the world for adults. But Natsuko Sawaya always envisioned children when she heard the phrase.

Growing up with a single mother in Japan, she was not able to afford to attend a college where she could major in obstetrics and gynecology or international relations. She earned her bachelor’s degree in French studies and began working at an international preschool in Tokyo.

This experience sparked her interest in early childhood development and maternal and child health. Thanks to a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship and the Rotary Peace Fellowship, Sawaya has studied in Italy, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, the United States, and this summer, in Malawi.

“The word ‘Rotary’ is like magic to me,” Sawaya says.

The Ambassadorial Scholarship from the Rotary Foundation funded Sawaya’s bachelor’s degree in education from the Universita di Bologna in Italy. While earning that degree, she spent one month each in Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe, studying the early childhood development of children growing up in institutions, including orphans.

A center for infants in Dakar, Senegal, struck a chord with her. When the Rotarians in Bologna offered to send her to any place that would benefit her career, she chose to return to Senegal. Sawaya remained there for two years.

“The first time I went to Senegal, I worked in Dakar at an infant center with about 90 babies,” Sawaya says. “When I went back, I chose to work at a larger center in Mbour, with more than 200 infants. I worked with a local psychology professor and volunteers to create a series of seminars to train the caregivers.”

After working for three years in the Japanese embassy in Mauritania and about one year working for the International Organization for Migration, Sawaya applied for a Rotary Peace Fellowship and was assigned to the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center with plans to study in the Gillings School’s Department of Maternal and Child Health. She was accepted and has completed the first year of the program. This summer, she will travel to Malawi to work with a local nongovernmental organization to implement Kangaroo Mother Care, an evidence-based method of infant care, in which the baby is held skin-to-skin on the mother’s or caregiver’s chest.

“There is high mortality of premature infants in Malawi,” Sawaya says. “The World Health Organization recommends the Kangaroo Mother Care method, especially for premature babies. The method is effective for thermal control, higher initiation of breastfeeding and bonding in all newborn infants. It is also an important tool for addressing neonatal mortality in developing countries or conflict zones where adequate health services are limited.”

Refugees are people first

Becca Bartlett stands by the Gillings School sign

Beccah Bartlett

“I graduated from the Gillings School’s Department of Maternal and Child Health on a Saturday and was on a flight the following Monday to determine the feasibility of a mobile app for improving the health of refugees in Europe,” says Beccah Bartlett, MPH, RNM, a Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Fellow. “I was working for years to put my knowledge and skills together to work with refugees, and Rotary saw potential in me. It’s an absolute gift.”

The skills Bartlett merged include an education and background in World War II history, anthropology, nursing, midwifery, and maternal and child health. Born and raised in Australia, Bartlett said she saw parallels between the obstetric care she provided to indigenous women and that which was needed for refugees in Europe.

“I was treating an indigenous woman in Australia after she had given birth, and I realized she was hemorrhaging,” Bartlett says. “She almost died. This was eye-opening to me because I thought getting to a hospital for care would be the biggest challenge. But hospitals in low-resource areas treat sicker patients with minimal staff. People simply didn’t understand the complexities of this case.

“It’s a similar situation with refugees because they too have a lack of resources,” she continues. “How do you help rebuild a community after war? This is what we are currently facing in Europe. This is one of the largest increases of refugees since World War II, which is the time period in history I majored in at university in Australia … Now I can look at this situation from the viewpoint of a lay historian and anthropologist and as a registered nurse and midwife. I can add the skills in peace and conflict resolution I learned through Rotary with my degree in maternal and child health from the Gillings School to create a more meaningful health intervention.”

After graduating from UNC this May, Bartlett headed to Europe to meet with refugees and stakeholders about developing a mobile health app.

“Many people mistakenly think refugees sit in camps waiting for handouts,” Bartlett says. “But in reality, many refugees in Europe are very well-educated. They want to learn the language of their new country. They want their children to attend school. And they have mobile phones. This led me to think about developing a mobile health app.”

During her initial trip to Europe, Bartlett was met with support from stakeholders including the department of health and the technology community, as well as members of the refugee communities themselves. She soon will return to Europe for the next phase of her project – network analysis. She will work with stakeholders and refugees to make decisions about which questions to include, which languages to use and how to code the app.

“There is a coding academy for refugees, and we are hoping to develop this app with them,” Bartlett says. “It makes sense because it not only builds their skill sets, but also gives them control of their own destinies. They are people first and refugees second. I have a set of tools, but I want them to decide how to build the house. Asking them to lead the process hopefully will give them a sense of ownership. It also promotes a more peaceful integration into their new society.”

Bartlett says she wouldn’t be doing this work without the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center.

“I am proof that their investment in people like me has a broad, meaningful reach,” she says.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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