The University of Iowa

Out of Africa

December 21st, 2010

This profile is from the UI College of Public Health InSight Fall 2010 publication.

Rebecca Arnold was enjoying her life in Chicago with a budding career in the publishing industry when she felt an itch. Her city life was exciting, but her career was missing something.

“It wasn’t lighting any fires,” she says. “I was at a point in my life when I wanted to add value to the world.”

Not long after, Arnold was feeling a different kind of itch as a Peace Corps volunteer maneuvering through the Spiny Desert, a region in Madagascar famous for its thorny, elaborate plants that she describes as reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss book. Prickly thorns aside, Arnold had a welcoming and insightful experience during her 1999-2002 volunteer stint.

“I was a community health volunteer in a remote, impoverished region of a remote, impoverished country off the coast of Africa,” she says. “Yet, I had the feeling that it was exactly where I needed to be right then and that it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing at that time.”

Arnold’s assignment was to collaborate with a local non-governmental organization on maternal and child health campaigns. She educated parents about diarrheal disease prevention, breastfeeding, vaccinations, and family planning methods, and she taught local teenagers about sexual and reproductive health and life skills. Arnold’s assignment also led to a brief stint with a health communication project in Tanzania, where she was later hired as a senior manager of the initiative.

The experience changed Arnold’s life and her career path, as it revealed her underlying interest in public health. Now, she is pursuing an MPH degree in community and behavioral health, and she also provides freelance communication services for international health endeavors.

Arnold is focusing her studies on global health and health communication. She returned to Africa this summer for her MPH practicum work in Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, where communities are fighting against sexual and gender-based violence. Her academic and experiential training have come full circle.

“I had to go all the way to Madagascar to find my passion,” Arnold says. “Now, I am working on my MPH, so that I can go back and continue the kind of work I was doing before.”