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Stephanie Rotolo '09, Global Health

As a student at the Duke University Global Health Institute, Stephanie Rotolo ’09 traveled with a professor and a handful of other students to the west African country of Togo to do fieldwork. “I quickly realized that two months was not enough time to really understand the rich culture and to get deep into a research project,” Rotolo says. Her answer: apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to spend nine months in Togo studying the use of biomedical and traditional healing practices. Here, she reflects on her work and how her Bryn Mawr education helped her get to this far-flung destination.

The field of global health first captured my attention at Bryn Mawr when Ms. Whalen, my college counselor, recommended that I read “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” which details Paul Farmer’s global health work. I’d always had an interest in medicine, along with a curiosity about foreign cultures and languages, so global health seemed to make perfect sense. What I quickly learned to love about the field is how interdisciplinary it is. In studying global health, I’m studying medicine, sociology, policy, economics, education, and history at the same time.

Within global health, my main interest is in health systems and policy. In Togo, I’m conducting a qualitative study of public behaviors and perceptions of medical pluralism, which means I spend my time conducting interviews with biomedical doctors, traditional healers and patients. The objective of these interviews is to understand how people make use of medical pluralism. I hope this research can help ignite discussion among health care providers themselves, and can ultimately inform strategies on integration or collaboration between the health care systems, in order to promote improved access, safety, and efficacy of appropriate medical treatment.

I learned about the necessity of cultural competence for conducting successful global health field work through my classes at Duke. So many projects led by Westerners in developing countries fail because they don’t take the local culture into consideration. Thus far, the Togolese people have been very open to helping me with my project. I thought initially that some people may be hesitant to talk about this topic, particularly concerning traditional medicine, for fear that I had a Western bias. Those I have interviewed, however, are proud to share their knowledge and culture with me.

Bryn Mawr taught me the importance of being independent and having my own voice, as well as what it means to be a leader. It was also at Bryn Mawr where I developed my curiosity for the world around me. I was always encouraged to ask questions and reach for new experiences. These qualities guided me in college, where I often looked for opportunities to apply and enhance my education outside of the classroom through internships, community service, and work and study abroad. In doing so, I discovered my passion for global health and challenged myself to go out and experience the realities of the field for a year. There are also practical things that my Bryn Mawr education gave me—like invaluable writing and communication skills, as well as thirteen years of French language training—that helped me to succeed in college, and continue to do so every day here in Togo.