Rising to the occasion

"The challenges you face ... force you to rise to the occasion and make for a very rewarding experience.”

- July 6, 2011

Alison Ahern, second from left, poses with volunteers at the community garden in Mokolodi, Botswana.
Alison Ahern, second from left, poses with volunteers at the community garden in Mokolodi, Botswana.

After a few years of study in Dalhousie’s School of Health and Human Performance, Alison Ahern says she learned a lot. But a recent 14-week internship in the African country of Botswana was an education in itself.

Originally from Penobscot, Maine, Ms. Ahern started out studying nursing at the University of Prince Edward Island. It wasn’t until clinical studies during second year that she discovered she wanted to work more closely with the community and have more one-on-one time with patients and clients.

After enrolling at Dal, she was introduced to Lois MacGregor, associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and coordinator of student internships in Health Promotion and Recreation. Dr. MacGregor, along with Professor Lesley Barnes, served as advisors to health promotion students from Botswana. The two were responsible for setting up internships with the Ministry of Health in Gaborone, Botswana and coordinating a two-way exchange of students through a Memorandum of Understanding between Dal and the University of Botswana. Ms. Ahern is the first health promotion intern to go to Botswana.

'Blank slate'

Shortly after her decision to work abroad, Ms. Ahern began making plans to leave Halifax and spend 14 weeks in Botswana working with public health personnel on several projects. She knew she should bring shorts and sunscreen, but beyond that, didn’t know what awaited her.

“I went there as a blank slate. I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the culture but had no idea what to expect,” she says.

After a 12-hour flight from New York City to Johannesburg, South Africa, she arrived in Gaborone, Botswana on January 13, 2011.

After getting settled in with her host family, she met with her supervisor, Keeletse Setapenyane, who like Ms. Ahern, is a Dal health promotion alumna.

“Ms. Setapenyane’s assistance, guidance, kindness and many years of practice has made this internship an experience of a lifetime,” says Ms. Ahern

In Botswana, Ms. Ahern or “Botho”—her name in the native language Setswana—worked with the Ministry of Health within the Advocacy and Community Mobilization 
Unit. She participated in several community health initiatives including a regional oral health clinic, a theatrical road show on youth alcohol abuse and training workshops for health professionals.

As well, she organized focus groups for women over the age of 50 in trying to understand the physical and social issues they face on a daily basis. On this project, she worked with Ellen Katse, yet another Dal health promotion alumna.

If that’s not enough, she volunteered at Save our Souls, an orphanage, and pitched in with a community garden project in one of the villages she worked in. Through her experiences, she discovered the citizens of Botswana were not all that different from people here.

“People in Botswana have the same issues that people in the western world have. Things like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy. Of course there are cultural differences, but the issues are the same.”

Students from Botswana at Dal

Although Ms. Ahern was the first student from Dal to travel to Botswana as part of her health promotion internship, it wasn’t the first time the two places joined forces. The Botswana government has sent several health education personnel to Dal to complete a science degree in health promotion. Susan Mogae and Tyro Selthong, for example, were sent by their government to Dal in 2003.

“There were so many things that surprised us when we arrived in Halifax—things you don’t even think about,” says Ms. Selthong, with a laugh. “The most surprising thing was how people show their affection to one another here. PDA is rare in Botswana.”

Both women graduated from Dal in 2007 and have stayed on in Halifax. Ms. Selthong works for the IWK Health Centre and Ms. Mogae works for Capital District Health Authority (CDHA) in health promotion. Their roles involve building cultural competency and working with public health groups to educate and promote diversity among constituents.  

When Ms. Ahern looks back on her experiences in Africa, she can say with confidence she grew both personally and professionally thanks to the overwhelming support of those at Dal and the Ministry of Health in Botswana. She recommends the internship to any health promotion student looking to experience health promotion and health care in a different country and cultural setting.

“The challenges you face transitioning from student to intern, in a new country, culture and time zone force you to rise to the occasion and make for a very rewarding experience.”


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