The Power of Volunteering

This blog started out more than 7 years ago (!) to document my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now I’m back volunteering at the health department where I used to work.

This year I have been working as an intern/volunteer at both the Orange County and Santa Clara County Health departments.

In Orange County I have been looking at their Hepatitis C data and trying to better understand their unique situation as a rehab destination for drug detoxification. This may end up turning into a dissertation, although I need to do more of a research plan and learn more about time series analysis.

In Santa Clara I have been doing random projects and data requests as assigned. Even though I worked as an infectious disease epidemiologist, I am now helping them out with general epi projects (chronic disease, social determinants of health, causes of death,) and helping mentor their interns. It’s weird because a lot of the things I worked on are now coming to fruition, with the future launch of the open data portal in several weeks. Many of these projects were their infancy when I left, and now they are actually happening! That’s one of the coolest part.

So you may be asking, Sara, why are you volunteering? Couldn’t you get paid?

County governments have limited resources and bringing on paid interns is unfortunately not always feasible.

There are also other advantages

  1. I can set my own schedule and come in to work when I want. This is true, however I’m in from 8:30-4:30 most days
  2. People have to treat you appropriately. You are there because you want to be there and not getting paid.
  3. Experience is experience whether you get paid or not. You can still put this on your resume
  4. Your supervisor can be used as a reference for future jobs
  5. This is a chance to hone your skills, and learn new ones, and in some ways, have more freedom to make mistakes
  6. You feel like you are part of a team and contributing and supporting people. I was able to respond to an urgent media request and help make sure that we had the right information to share with the public.

I’m so glad to have a sense of purpose again and to keep me busy before I go back to UCI at the end of September for TA training.

I can’t wait to share my love for public health with undergrads and get to use my teaching skills from my undergraduate education and Peace Corps experience.


Year one…and reflections upon other things

Hi all,

I survived my first year of my PhD in Public Health Program, with approximately 48 flights (give or take) and 40 credit hours of class. (WOO HOO!)

My husband and I spent a wonderful time in Lake Tahoe celebrating our anniversary and reconnecting.

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Emerald bay, Lake Tahoe

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It’s strange being home and not having to worry about getting to the airport and doing homework. It’s nice to be back in my own space with my stuff, with my husband. It’s strange not having the structure of classes, flights, assignments, papers, etc. I’m trying to figure out stuff to do everyday, papers to read, and to work on this master lit review on Hepatitis C for a potential dissertation topic.

In other news I’ve become a somewhat social media recluse (except for instagram). I left a message on my facebook saying that I was basically no longer using it and to use email or my phone to reach me.

Last week I got a call from one of my best friends in undergrad and we caught up. I was totally surprised.

It’s interesting when you stop posting when you have a lot of followers/facebook friends how the information stream just stops. In my case, people aren’t sure where I am at the moment (which is probably a good thing) or for our anniversary, we didn’t get a lot of messages, which is fine.

I’ve also seen several of my friends completely step away, due to how political things have gotten on facebook and how it was not the bubble they wished to be a part of.

I miss the socialization that I had as an undergrad where there were always people down the hall, in the public bathroom, in the dining hall to talk to.

One of the drawbacks of being off from school is that I don’t have the classmates I saw everyday, or coworkers to see everyday. Building a routine is hard when you don’t have a class to go to.

I’ll make it work and find something to do. I’m just happy to be home, and I feel that you do not have to have everything in your life perfect to find happiness. We’re always searching for perfection and something more, but I think that sometimes we have to just stop and enjoy things. I’ll live the social recluse life. People know how to get a hold of me if they need to.

Why i’m on ice with Facebook

Disclaimer: Rant Ahead

I’m not sure if anyone else reads this blog anymore, but I thought that this may be an opportunity to share my thoughts about Facebook and my personal experience with it off of facebook where I could write more about it.

Last quarter was particularly difficult, with 4 classes and 16 credit hours. With 2 weeks to go in the quarter, due to stress, avoiding distractions, and other reasons, I logged out of facebook and installed a site blocker to prevent myself from going to it.

I was amazed how I was not looking at my phone all the time, not looking for likes on my posts, not looking for likes on my pictures. I could actually spend time with people and really connect with them and not be glued to my screen. I didn’t need the validation from people. I wasn’t sitting on my computer worrying about if people were online and if they were going to contact me, or be tempted to start an online conversation that would last a long time.

I’ve become more and more private since I joined Facebook 11 years ago. When I was in Burkina, I did not have internet access, and only posted pictures and things that I thought would be relevant to my friends and family. I didn’t post things like “OMG this is horrible and i’m stuck in my latrine all day and all I can eat is To with okra sauce”

When I got married, I only posted a smattering of wedding pictures because I felt weird about some creeper or friends of friends or family looking at our pictures. This is not meant to be a criticism about thepeople who post all of their wedding photos, but it was not right for me and my husband.

I also feel like sometimes the features of Facebook get misused by people. I have people tag me in posts that I don’t want to be tagged in, calling me out about something to get my attention or something they need. Sometimes the tagging feature is useful for job offers or people looking to connect over shared experiences, but I’m really frustrated with it. I have also had host country nationals from Burkina friend me and then tag me in every single photo they are in (but I am not), and then ask me to send them a computer.

I’ve un-followed and blocked people, and looking at my news feed just makes me sad, so I don’t really do that anymore. The new algorithm made few of my posts actually seen, and contributed to that lack of validation feeling because people were just not seeing my posts.

The other issue is that I got a notification from Facebook that not me, but some of my friends, used the app that helped mine data for Cambridge Analytica, which may have given out some of my public information. Geez, that doesn’t help me at all. I’m not sure who did it, and I don’t really care who, but my data got stolen.

I commute on a weekly basis but I don’t post my airport location or where I am at any given time. If you want to find out if I am in town, you can text me.

The only real reason I keep my Facebook around is to keep in touch with my Peace Corps friends, and my international friends. One of the greatest axioms of Peace Corps is, the people who really want to be in contact with you will still be in contact with you, and the people who do not want to be in contact with you will not.

Instagram is the only social media I regularly check, as it has things that make me happy, like drag queens, food pictures, makeup pictures, cat pictures, and others.

Disconnecting from my phone has been a godsend in some cases and has led me to be more connected and to pay more attention to the people around me. It’s also increased my battery life, and helped decrease my stress.

Bottom line:

If you need to get a hold of me, you know how, and social media is not the happy shiny place it used to be.


Time is currency…

So it’s the second quarter of my PhD program. I’m three weeks in. Midterms are on the horizon, and I’m constantly feeling like I’m running out of time.

I commute back and forth from San Jose every week. This has its advantages and disadvantages

Some of the advantages include being able to focus on my school work during the week without feeling guilty about spending time with my husband. I have a quiet, conducive workspace, with access to online and actual libraries.

Some of the disadvantages are that when I am back in San Jose, most of my time is spent doing homework. One of the great things about being a music major in undergrad is that I spent a lot of time doing work outside of class time. I had to practice several hours a day, and when I was in the top orchestra, we had 6 hours of rehearsal a week, with only one hour of credit. This was nothing compared to my friends in the Marching Illini at the time who were practicing every night and had their weekends gobbled up by game days.

I keep hearing myself say, “I don’t have time for that” and opting out of activities because I feel like that time would be better spent during homework. I’ve always had a really strong work ethic, and I’m afraid of procrastinating. I don’t like leaving things until the last method, and I try and plan things out and make lists so I don’t forget anything.

Commuting by plane also cuts down on time spent driving or on other forms of transportation.

This makes me think about when I was a Peace Corps volunteer and I had really boring days. Sometimes I would take two naps a day, especially if I had taken my mefloquine the previous day and did not get a good night sleep.  I had such an excess of free time. Everything moved slower in village, and I think I ended up appreciating things more.

Now, everything for me is now evaluated if it is or is not, a productive use of my time. Sometimes I wish I had a time turner like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter. I try to take time for myself and do things that make me feel good. I think it’s hard when your support system is split up across the state and country.

At least cell phone calls and FaceTime are free. I just wish I could bank up my time and use it later, but it just doesn’t work that way. For now, I’ll just keep chugging along.


Thoughts on the beginning of this PhD journey

So I’m officially 7 weeks into my PhD program at UC Irvine with three weeks to go left in the quarter.

It’s strange but not strange at the same time being back at school. My current program and my master’s at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public are very different.

At JHSPH you come in with a cohort of around 280 students from many different backgrounds and countries

I have 6 in my PhD cohort

At JHSPH I was in class 7-8 hours a day with 3-4 hours of homework after that not including class readings

At UCI, I only have class two days a week. 6 hours of class on Monday, with 3 on Thursday, but the readings for class can be 3-4 hours not including working on papers.

I’m also commuting almost every week spending half my time in San Jose racking up those miles.

In some ways I feel strangely prepared.

My husband and I did 8 months long distance with a time zone difference that meant we had to schedule time to talk to each other, and only got to see each other every 6-8 weeks. Sometimes I would not know the next time I would see him. Now I get to see him every week.

JHSPH had 8 week terms with no reading week for exams. You had to study, attend class, and finish your final projects. You had sit down exams every month that you had to study for, including figuring out your capstone project, working at your practicum, and trying to do well in your classes.

Having two different jobs before I went back to school also makes a difference. You have to show up to work every day, you have deadlines and meetings to prepare for, it teaches you to be professional, and how to manage your time. However, when I was working I did not have to take my work home with me.

Part of me feels selfish that I am doing this program and being away from my husband, but he is clearly one of my biggest fans. I’m getting a lot more experience and learning about things that I simply did not have time for during my Master’s degree. I’m also glad I am taking this time to enrich myself and get paid to learn! It’s a bummer that I don’t get to come home and give my husband a kiss every night, but we call each other on facetime and make each other laugh.

Peace Corps teaches you how to adapt and change to a new environment. How to find the important things, why to remember the selfish reasons you did it in the first place. It teaches you how to get integrated and how to live in different conditions. My current apartment has no AC and no dishwasher. I spent a heat wave like I did in Burkina Faso, under a wet sheet trying to cool off.

One thing I’m having trouble with is making and maintaining friendships at home and at school. I don’t necessarily feel as bonded as I did with my MPH 2015 class at JHSPH. I think that’s because we did not have an entire summer term together filled with classes.

It’s not an easy transition, but in some ways, I feel prepared.

Feelings about the Peace Corps evacuation in Burkina Faso

As some of you may or may not know, The Peace Corps Burkina Faso program was closed on September 3rd 2017 due to security concerns and the volunteers were evacuated.

You can read the official statement here:

I served in Burkina Faso from June 2011-August 2013 as an education volunteer in the village of Lèba.

According to the Peace Corps website, over 2075 volunteers have served from 1966-1987, and 1995-2017. President Thomas Sankara was assassinated in 1987, and there was an 8 year recess when Peace Corps was asked to leave by the government.

As a returned peace corps volunteer (RPCV), I am in almost what seems like a state of mourning. A program that I spent two years and three months of my life is now over. Indefinitely. A group of volunteers that swore in less than two weeks before has now left after just getting to site.

I (fortunately and unfortunately) have no personal experience with evacuation as a PCV, however I have spoken with several volunteers who have been previously evacuated.

In my training class we had 3 former evacuees from Peace Corps Niger. I had the greatest respect for them and looked up to them all during training. They described the evacuation process as being traumatic, having only hours to pack their things and travel to their consolidation points. Some of them never got their things back.

In April 2012, a Coup D’état happened overnight in Mali, the president was kidnapped, and the volunteers were evacuated soon after. I met several of them during my service in Burkina, as it was an easy transfer for them as Jula and French are also spoken in Burkina. One of those Mali volunteers told me that they generally decide to evacuate volunteers is when they cannot physically get to volunteers, or they are unable to transfer money into their bank accounts because the government is shut down.

I was extremely fortunate during my service that we were never consolidated. There was a point where there was an attack on a chemical plant in Algeria where I was asked should things get bad if I wanted to leave the country or my site voluntarily, and I said no, and would leave only if the circumstances and my safety truly depended on it. There is something called “interrupted service” where for circumstances beyond the volunteer’s control happens, and they are able to leave Peace Corps something akin to an “honorable discharge”

Since I left Burkina, things have gotten worse

in 2014, there was an uprising where citizens tried to prevent then President Blaise Compaore from changing the constitution to eliminate term limits. The parliament building was burned to the ground and Colonel Isaac Zida became interim president.

In 2015, the RSP (presidential police) staged a mutiny and held the then president Michel Kafando hostage. This coup ultimately failed and they were able to have elections.

In January 2016 there was a terrorist attack at the Cappucino restaurant and Splendid Hotel. I used to go to Cappucino in Ouagadougou when I was a volunteer.

In August 2017 there was a similar terrorist attack at a Turkish restaurant on the same street.

It breaks my heart that because of terrorists deliberately targeting foreigners, and also apparently Peace Corps volunteers, that the volunteers had to be evacuated and the program ended.

It breaks my heart to see all of the fantastic work done by the Peace Corps Burkina Faso American staff, host country national staff, volunteers, and counterparts come to a standstill. One of the most powerful diplomatic tools we have: cultural exchange, is no longer available to us.

It breaks my heart to see a president who wishes to slash the budget of such a meaningful program promoting world friendship and building bridges between Americans and other countries in need.

To the Burkinabé people, I wish you the following (in Mooré):

Wend na ko-d fo panga (May God give you strength)

Wend na sonsg fo noogo (May God give you good things)

Wend na ko-d fo noglem (May God give you love)

May it be one day that Peace Corps can return to your wonderful country and continue to cultivate change.

A Brief Update. On to the next thing…

So it’s been a while since I updated.

What’s new? I got married.

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So that happened. My husband and I had a wonderful wedding surrounded by family, friends, and fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Everything worked out and my planning genes seemed to kick in.

So what’s next, well, I’m starting a PhD at UC Irvine in about three weeks. I will be commuting back and forth from San Jose to Irvine, taking classes part of the week, and then spending the rest of the week at home in San Jose (For this quarter anyway).

It will be a challenge, but at least I won’t be 8000 miles and several flights away and we will be in the same time zone. I know that it will not be as hard as when we were living in Baltimore and San Jose apart, across three different time zones with not particularly compatible work and sleep schedules.

I have hope.

I’m bummed out that I am leaving a job that I enjoy at the public health department but I am excited to learn so much more about public health and have a chance to learn more about qualitative research and methods, and learn more leadership skills and job flexibility down the road.

On to the next adventure!