The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Race and Ethnicity: Global health issues

December 20th, 2011

Reflections on Race and Ethnicity

My name is Kolie Eko, and I am a third year Microbiology major and undergraduate research assistant in the Bradley Jones Laboratory at The University of Iowa.  I was born in Nairobi, Kenya.  My family is a multicultural family; my father is from Cameroon, Africa, and my mother is from Calcutta, India.  My extended family communicates in English, French, and several Asian and African languages.  As far back as I can remember, there were signs of poverty, disease, hunger, and poor healthcare facilities in Cameroon where my father is from, in Kenya, where we lived, and in India, where my mother is from.  That reality did not personally affect my brother and I.  My parents were able to provide a comfortable life for our family.  However, I could not understand the huge gap between the very rich and the very poor in India and Africa. I wished I could do something to help the many school age boys and girls who never went to school but lived and sometimes died on the streets in Nairobi.

This desire to help others around me spread to a global interest in international and public health issues.  As a result, I desire to learn more about the current health situations in a variety of countries and areas.  I had the opportunity to study abroad during the winter of 2008-2009 in India, and this past winter 2009-2010 in Japan. 

During my trip to India, I was able to study how the Indian health care system operates within the context of the country’s multi-cultural realities.  When I arrived in Madurai, India, I found the culture of Southern India strikingly different from American culture, and even from Northern Indian culture that I had previously experienced.  From the manner of travel to religion, diet, attire, and language, Southern India certainly was a cultural adventure.  During my trip, I was able to study bacterial diseases and their effects from a standpoint outside of the traditional lab.  I learned more about the living situations of most Indians, their social hierarchies, and their daily interactions with water.  I discovered that the spread of bacterial diseases could be affected by cultural practices regarding the use of water.  For example, ceremonial religious baths in holy but polluted rivers, and drinking untreated water from these same polluted rivers was a cultural and religious practice that is a major cause of the spread of bacterial diseases.

My trip to Japan began with a stay in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Here I was given the opportunity to learn about World War II from the American viewpoint.  This consisted of trips to visit Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial, and Punchbowl Cemetery.  The trip then continued to Tokyo, Japan, where I was able to visit Yakasuni shrines, Kyoto, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two sites of the atom bomb droppings.  This study abroad trip juxtaposed the American and Japanese memory of World War II from a rhetorical and historical standpoint, and was a definitely out of my science comfort zone.  However, it diversified my intellectual curiosity, as I was able to learn more about how different countries remember the same event.  The accuracy of a memory depends on who is recounting the memory, and the time lapse between when the memory occurred and when it is being recounted.  In the case of history, memory is sometimes all we have to go on because it is the only record available.  This trip was truly a learning experience for me; I learned more about the Pacific War than I ever have in all my years in school.  In Japan, I was able to see firsthand the only country in the world that has the ability to be a modern world superpower, but yet has chosen not to.  From Japanese tea ceremonies to visiting beautiful gardens and temples, my Japan experience was an amazing opportunity to visit another Asian country. 

As a domestic student of color and study abroad returnee, I have experienced ways in which one can openly communicate despite barriers such as spoken and body language.  My study abroad experiences have provided me with opportunities to learn how to navigate and respectfully approach different cultures, their expectations, and their practices.  In addition, my study abroad experiences have enabled me to see the current health situations in other rapidly changing countries.  The personal relationships I have made on these trips, coupled with the research experiences of these programs, will help me become a more knowledgeable leader and advocate for all people.

Kolie Eko