Category Archives: Summer 2015

My Summer Research Experience

This past week marked the end of my summer research internship, which has been an incredible opportunity for both learning and personal growth. I researched sex education in Mexico, a topic which combine my diverse academic interests

To provide a brief overview, the project focuses on the history of sex education in 20th century Mexico. and is specifically interested in addressing the various methods through which people access information about sex and how it shapes the understanding of sexuality, gender, and nationality.

First, the internship helped me to gain a better understanding of the historical research process. This summer, I worked closely with a professor in Tulane’s History Department whom acted as a mentor throughout my internship. Before leaving for Mexico, I engaged in preliminary research by reading a number of secondary sources in order to understand the historical and political context of that period. In Mexico, most of my time was dedicated to collecting sources – both within and and outside of the archives. I have spent the past few weeks organizing and interpreting these sources. While I have accomplished a great deal this summer, the project is not yet complete. I learned that undertaking any research project is a significant time commitment that requires both a great deal of patience and realistic goal-setting. In the coming academic year, I plan to continue work on the project. I hope to analyze some of the regional data using ArcGIS software, which I will learn in my coursework this semester.

My Spanish-speaking abilities also improved significantly while working abroad. Prior to my trip, I had taken six semesters of Spanish coursework at Tulane. I had already developed strong reading, writing and comprehension capabilities, yet I struggled speak and maintain a conversation in Spanish. Living in Mexico forced me to continuously speak in Spanish – in restaurants, in the market, in taxis. I began to realize that what had initially inhibited me from speaking freely was not a lack of vocabulary or knowledge but rather a lack of confidence in my own abilities. Once I accepted the fact that making errors is a normal part of the learning process, my speaking abilities improved rapidly. By the end of my time in Mexico, I was able to speak fluidly and carry on lengthy conversations with native Spanish-speakers – a level of proficiency that would have been otherwise unattainable in a traditional classroom setting.

More generally, my internship experience allowed me to realize the importance of having self-confidence in both academics and the professional world. This trait is especially valuable for women because we live in a society where we are often taught to doubt our own skills and abilities. I will certainly carry these lessons with me into the rest of my academic career in Economics, a field in which women are significantly underrepresented. For those of you interested in pursuing a research position, I encourage you to talk your professors, get to know them, and discuss your interests. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Often, many opportunities exist that are not officially advertised or publicized. In fact, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work in Mexico for the summer had I not discussed my academic interests and goals with my professor at the time.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that the Newcomb College Institute have provided me this summer — it’s been an unforgettable experience!

And So They Took My (Demonstrational) Dildos

It’s hard to believe that my time at Masakhane has come to an end. It feels like just yesterday that I showed up in Newark. Never in my life has three months gone by so quickly. I’ve learned an incredible amount about sexuality, facilitation, and the Newark community. The skills I’ve acquired are vast, and not all of them are quantifiable. It’s difficult to explain all of the awareness I’ve gained – from just reading participant emotions to understanding that cultural biases are something easily overridden.

My experiences this summer have been invaluable to me. They’ve helped to shape my professional aspirations in a way that I was not expecting. I always new I wanted to work in a field of public health, preferably related to child and maternal health, but now I am much more sure that I want to be working in the field of sexual health and sexuality. I also never truly considered teaching as a career option, but now it’s on the table. Teaching was an incredibly rewarding experience (though difficult at times). Even if I’m not teaching in the “traditional” sense, I would really like to be involved in some form or other of education. I’d like to continue teaching in a more alternative setting throughout the rest of my time at Tulane (perhaps as a doula – otherwise known as a labor specialist).

For anyone who is interested in sexuality or sexual health education, I would encourage them to read anything and everything they can get their hands on. Read as many differing opinions as you can. Inform yourself on current events related to sexual health, but also dig deeper. Don’t just use Facebook, reading click bait titled “The Truth About Being Transgender,” – look harder. Be critical, but also be sensitive. Recognize your own truths and biases. It’s easy to get angry and worked up when reading intentionally inflammatory arguments on the Internet. Avoid as much Internet fodder as possible, or you will burn out. Sexual and reproductive health in America are such hot button topics, it’s easy to get mired in the thousands of voices shouting at you that what you believe is wrong, your sexuality is wrong, and that your reproductive health is not yours to control. But sexual health education is so important, so valuable, and so misunderstood; giving up isn’t really an option. At the end of the day, when a participant thanks you, and says, “I can’t wait for next week” – it’s all worth it.

And no, I didn’t get to keep any of my demonstrational sex toys.

That's me scarfing shake shack while other interns look cute after visiting the Museum of Sex together.
That’s me scarfing shake shack while other interns look cute after visiting the Museum of Sex together.

Living and learning in Mexico

Living in Mexico for five weeks was a whirlwind of excitement and new experiences. Since returning to the U.S. a week ago, I’ve had some time to reflect on my experiences and discoveries.

First, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations of academic research. As I wrote in an earlier post, very little academic research exists on sex education in Mexico, which presented an exciting and slightly daunting challenge. During my first days of work in the Bank of Mexico, we located a plethora of sources, including a set of Social Values Surveys the 1980s, which provided information on societal beliefs surrounding women, gender roles, and family planning practices. I erroneously grew accustomed to the success, expecting it to continue for the duration of my internship. Visiting the Lerdo Library during my second week helped to ground my expectations. There, I examined archived newspapers in search of coverage of sex education controversies during the 20th century. From previous research, we had a range of dates to use as a starting point in our search. My naive optimism soon waned after hours of examining newspapers in Spanish with little to no progress. While the experience was frustrating, it was vital to my developing a realistic understanding of academic research.

Doing a bit of heavy reading in the Lerdo Library
Doing a bit of heavy reading in the Lerdo Library

One of the most interesting aspects of working in the archives was discovering the origins of sex education in Mexico. The impetus behind state-implemented sex education was the eugenics movement during the 1930s, Mexico’s Progressive era. Mexican eugenicists sought to introduce a sex education program in public schools. However, the movement ultimately failed due to its highly controversial nature. Throughout the 20th century, these political efforts were largely centered in the federal capital and other urban areas. The archival materials documented the opinions and movements in urban Mexico, but only told part of the story. While I worked in the archives, I found myself asking, “What about the rest of the state? What about rural Mexico?” Traveling to Oaxaca helped to me to answer some of these questions. Located south of the capital, Oaxaca is one of the most culturally and historically significant states in Mexico, as well as one of the poorest. A large portion of the population is of indigenous ancestry and lives in rural areas, with limited access to education, health care and other social resources. How do people access information on sex education in the absence of social resources?

I realized that in order to answer this question I would need to look beyond the archives in unexpected places. One weekend, I traveled outside of Oaxaca City to hike the Sierra Norte Mountains. The mountain range is home to a number of small villages known as los Pueblos Mancomunados. While walking through San Miguel Amatlan, I noticed a wall full of murals. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the murals contained important public health messages, ranging from heart disease to malaria to female preventative health care. If I had not stopped to look, I would have missed this fascinating example of art and pop culture functioning as an unofficial, non-state led from of sex education. Below I have included a photo of one of the murals below, which encourages women to regularly seek preventative care and examinations.

Translation: Do not allow the cancer to reach you! Go to your clinic every six months for a breast exam and pap smear
Translation:
Do not allow the cancer to reach you!
Go to your clinic every six months for a breast exam and pap smear

All things considered, I found more material than I would have expected. Still, it is humbling to recognize that my understanding of sex education in Mexico remains incomplete and that much research remains to fill the gaps in this unwritten history.

Intern’s Choice

The start of August marks the last few days of my internship at Project SAVE.  I’ve been with the organization since the middle of May and in that short period of time, we have assisted over 40 victims of domestic violence and their families.

The primary insight that I have gained through my internship is that domestic violence exists within every community.  Our clients represent a multitude of ages, races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds.  Only some of our clients are married to their abusers.  Many of our clients have children, some from their present relationship and others from past relationships.  Domestic violence is a pervasive problem within our community and it is through non-profit organizations such as Project SAVE and the NOFJC, as well as community education programs, that we are able to break the cycle of domestic violence and provide hope and healing to victims and their families.

Let me share with you a brief story about one of our clients that I have been blessed to meet this summer.  She came into the NOFJC seeking assistance with filing a temporary restraining order on behalf of herself and her two young children.  With the help of the legal advocate, she was able to get her paperwork in order and I was asked to accompany her and her daughter to court so that she could file the restraining order.  The young client was very nervous and I was thankful for the opportunity to provide her with moral support and guidance (the courthouse can be very confusing).  The filing process took a few hours and during that time I talked with her about her situation, her children, and what had led her here.  Through the provisions granted in the TRO, she was able to obtain temporary sole custody of her two children.  We went to court earlier this month and unfortunately had to reset the court date, which is very common due to the short turn-around on these types of cases.  While waiting for her case to be called, I provided her with support and a listening ear as she shared how she has been progressing since I first saw her a few weeks ago right after she decided to leave her abusive situation and file the TRO.  She and her children are doing well and they have found a safe place to live.  Although we are still awaiting her new court date where she will hopefully obtain an 18-month or permanent Protective Order from the judge, she has already begun attending counseling sessions and GED classes.

As important as emergency legal services such as TROs and POs are to survivors of domestic violence, they are just one of the many comprehensive services that organizations such as Project SAVE and the NOFJC provide.  Comprehensive services include legal services, mental health services, employment services, and family services.  All of these services work in harmony to allow a victim of domestic violence to rise above his or her situation and become a true survivor of domestic violence.  Each survivor is a unique individual with inherent value and dignity.  The care and support that each survivor receives is catered to their specific needs.  If you are, or know someone who is, a victim of domestic violence, please know that there are free resources available.  If you’re in New Orleans, please reach out or direct others to Project SAVE and the New Orleans Family Justice Center.  If you live outside the city, please contact your local Family Justice Center.  There is hope and healing to be found for victims of domestic violence!

Learning to Love The Heat: A Lesson in Flexibility

Even more official - a business card!
Even more official – a business card!

Fact: Newark public school buildings often do not have air conditioning.

Fact: Sometimes schools forget you are running a workshop on a particular day and give you three students when you were expecting 25 (or they cancel the entire workshop – but only after you’ve set up the classroom).

Realization: There is little to nothing I can do about either of the aforementioned facts (except dress lightly and resolve myself to being incredibly sweaty at all times).

Working this summer with the Masakhane Center has been an education – in more ways than one. While, yes, I’ve learned copious amounts of information about STIs and how to talk to a twelve year old about first time sex, I’ve also had to work on being flexible and fluid. Flexibility is key in sexuality education, and not just in the way that I teach. I’ve largely had to adjust my attitude and expectations. You forgot we were coming to teach today? No problem. None of the kids have their permission slips, so we can’t actually talk about anything related to sex? Hay no problema. We just figure it out. When I was so married to the idea of structure, I often had a harder time finding space to teach.

And the kids. The questions they ask are never really what I expect. If you are too stuck on a particular lesson plan, you might miss a golden opportunity to have an honest conversation with your participants. For example, when I was facilitating a workshop on pregnancy with middle school aged girls, when spent a large amount of our time talking about the expenses that accompany a pregnancy. We talked about privilege, about the medicalization of the birthing process, and why abortion might just be a financial decision above all. Not at all what I expected to be talking about. If my partner and I had “stuck to the script” as it were, we wouldn’t have been able to have such an in depth and interesting conversation. Learning to let the participants guide our lessons has made me a much better facilitator.

This attitude of “letting it go,” for lack of a better term, is something I’m trying to apply to my everyday life. More than I realized before, if I just let things happen the way they are going to happen (I still have agency – don’t worry), I often end up feeling happier and less stressed than ever before. Who knew that teaching sex ed could be so darn spiritual?

My official staff photo. Notice: Had not learned the dress lightly rule yet - am very sweaty.
My official staff photo. Notice: Had not learned the dress lightly rule yet – am very sweaty.

Experiencing my new environment, Geneva

Living in Geneva, especially as an intern, is an incredible experience. My new environment has allowed me to meet many people from all over the world, largely facilitated by my stay in a hostel. After an hour spent cooking the communal kitchen, you can meet many interesting people, many of whom are also interns at one of the many NGOs or intergovernmental organizations stationed in the city. Everyone I have met has incredible stories to tell of their own travels abroad or of other experiences working in international relations or public health. I’ve found our discussions of the work we’re doing, or hope to do, some of the most interesting and instructive experiences of my time here here.

With the friends I’ve made at the hostel, I’m trying to experience all Geneva has to offer in the summer, which I’ve heard retains a vibrancy over other times of year (Geneva is not exactly known for its nightlife). Recently, a weekend-long music festival took place, with stages set up all over Geneva, tucked into courtyards in the old town, parks and public squares. The city’s summer parade also took place, marked by an excess of techno music and people in tutus running around spraying over-heated onlookers with water guns. My friends and I have also been spending as much time as possible in the city’s exceptionally clean (especially compared to my own Lake Michigan in Chicago) lake, as a heatwave is sweeping much of Western Europe (so far it’s gotten up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit).

Simply walking around Geneva, or taking the bus to and from work, affords plenty of pleasure, as well. It’s fun to observe how multi-cultural the city is, as a significant percentage of its residents are not Swiss. You can hear many different languages just walking around the city, as see people in many different types of dress, visit Japanese restaurants and, like I did a few days ago, eat at an Ethiopian restaurant which takes on more of a night-club vibe during the weekend after dark. The old town, where my hostel is located, is also exceedingly charming. Everyday I pass medieval facades on my way to work, which now front high-end bike shops and cafes that have finally gotten me into coffee.

I have enjoyed exploring Geneva and adapting to my new surroundings immensely. With the help of new friends and some locals, I’ve found the transition from the US to Switzerland to be more fun than anything else. Geneva offers plenty of relaxation when you need it, but also sustains a driven buzz, rooted in its banking culture, the presence of some of the most powerful organizations in the world, and the orderly tick of Swiss life (Clock-related pun? Not sorry). I hope to find myself in Geneva again some day. Until then, I’ll have plenty of memories of work and taking in the city to sustain me.

WHIV’s Connection to Odyssey House

My favorite part about interning at WHIV New Orleans is being connected to Odyssey House. Odyssey House is a substance abuse and HIV/AIDS rehabilitation center for people of all ages in New Orleans. Located in Mid City, the Odyssey House family works to help not only substance abusers and those living with HIV/AIDS but their employees and interns. As a public health major, Odyssey House showed me all of the programs they offer and information about how I can use my major and apply it to the practice. They gave me a tour of the rehabilitation center and let me meet a few members. I was even lucky enough to run a few segments with the administrative team on our talk radio.

With this internship I have gained a perspective on which fields of public health I am most interested in. I am also seriously considering working for Odyssey House in the near future. I valued the family aspect of how well Odyssey House treats their staff and interns, even if they are working as part of their radio station. I have set new goals for what I want to achieve this academic year thanks to Odyssey House and plan on visiting and possibly interning during the academic year. As far as my goals, I was able to accomplish every single one and set more this summer. However, I couldn’t have done this amazing internship without help from the Newcomb College Institute and their support.

Final Project at WHIV New Orleans

My last week at WHIV 102.3fm has been one of the most hectic weeks I have been here. In my last post, I mentioned that I had a 15 minute segment on a topic of my choice. I chose to talk about the Tulane bubble and how students often attend most of their academic career without leaving campus or seeing the city of New Orleans. In my segment I interviewed five people to discuss their opinions of the Tulane bubble and what they believed contributed to the situation. One student, who claims to avoid the bubble, said that this stems from the lack of transportation in the city. She argued that the streetcar is unreliable and cabs are expensive. Another student claimed that the campus bubble is normal for most college campuses and finds the bubble to be “safe.”

I was impressed with the variety of information and theories I received and found that 15 minutes wasn’t enough time to cover everything. However, I am glad to say that my final project at WHIV was one of the most rewarding. It is a topic that I am interested in as New Orleans has become a new home for me and I am interested on what new topic I can report next.

Key Messaging Outlines for UNHCR

A few weeks ago I started working on a project I feel will truly benefit the Public Information team at UNHCR, as well as myself. Currently, the PI team is set up so that each employee covers the refugee crises/situations in a certain part of the world. These divisions are unequally drawn based on how much conflict is happening in a given part of the world, and therefore how often a UNHCR will want to share information on a topic. For example, one person covers only Syria and Iraq, another covers all of Europe, another covers the horn of Africa, etc. This allows each team member to develop relationships with our people in the field and to understand the UNHCR’s role in each situation on a deeper level. However, it also means that when someone is on leave, on mission, or even out for the day, our coverage of their area of focus can be limited. It is a huge amount of pressure for a spokesperson to speak at a press briefing on a topic with which they are not incredibly familiar, as they could truly be asked anything about it. So, that’s where this project comes in.

I’m working on creating Key Messaging Outlines for all the major refugee situations in the world; essentially Public Information “cheat sheets.” My goal is to compile outlines that will enable any PI team member to present on a given topic and effectively express UNHCR’s perspective on an issue. These one page outlines include background, UNHCR’s key needs/messages, important facts such as numbers and locations of refugees, and funding requirements. Then I have a key documents section that includes recent reports, funding appeals, etc. It also links to the latest UNHCR briefing note on a given situation, which the PI team has said is the most useful key document to have in mind while you’re speaking at a press briefing. It shows how your colleagues presented on an issue, what terminology they used, etc. Finally, I include an infographic map at the end of each document. This helps people to visualize a conflict in the context of its neighboring countries. It often includes which areas are the least stable or where the main refugee camps are located.

CAR map
Central African Republic refugee map for key messaging outline

Another goal is to create these documents in a way that can be easily reviewed and updated at the beginning of each week by the spokesperson for that area. The background information is less likely to change. However, we often get updated numbers from the field every week or two. All the key numbers, financial requirements, etc are bold and written so that a spokesperson should be able to simply update the numbers as necessary and essentially leave everything else. I have also made a blank outline that can be easily filled in if a new crisis arises or a minor situation becomes more significant.

I have met with the each spokesperson to discuss key UNHCR messages, which I think has helped accomplish several goals. By meeting with them one on one about their countries, they have also been able to provide input as to how to structure the key messaging outlines in the most useful way, one suggesting to include a map, another suggesting a link to the latest briefing note. This information is valuable because it tells me what will make this a project that the team will actually use when I am gone. It also makes the spokespeople feel more involved in the making of these documents, which I believe will encourage them to actually keep the outlines up to date after I leave. Finally, it has allowed me to work on something one on one with each person on our team. This has been a great opportunity for me to get to know them each better in a professional context.

This project has been a great learning experience for me. I have learned so much about each of these refugee crises, how UNHCR is involved, and more importantly, when the UNHCR should not be involved. There are many sensitivities that UNHCR has to work around in order to serve refugees. Sometimes this means separating the organization from the political discussion around it, and sometimes it doesn’t. I hope that when I check up with UNHCR in a few months, the spokespeople will still be using these outlines to keep the whole team up to date on major issues.

75th anniversary of Resolution 1325 on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women
75th anniversary of Resolution 1325 on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women
Watching my desk neighbor William do an interview with France24 down the hall
Watching my desk neighbor William do an interview with France24 down the hall

First week in Mexico

While I’ve reached the mid-point in my summer internship, my time in Mexico is only beginning. My first week in Mexico City has been very exciting – filled with plenty of new sights, sounds, and experiences.

Of course, all the newness has required adjustment. In particular, adapting to the immense size of the city has proven to be a bit of a challenge. With a population of over 20 million people, Mexico City is the second largest city in the world. Though numbers alone don’t quite do the city justice. I was only able to fully appreciate the size of Mexico City on my flight. The aerial view is both overwhelming and incredible – urban sprawl as far as the eye can see.

Aerial View of Mexico City

Despite its size, I’ve grown to appreciate Mexico City for its vibrant nature. At all hours of the day (and night), people are active out and about the city. There is always something going on, from city-wide free museum days to Sunday bike rides on the Paseo de la Reforma. I have even grown accustomed to the late night chatter and the calls of the street vendor selling “ricos, deliciosos y calientitos tamales oaxaqueños.

Thousands of cyclists, joggers, and families fill Paseo de la Reforma on Sunday
Thousands of cyclists, joggers, and families fill Paseo de la Reforma on Sunday

It was also exciting to finally begin work in the archives. Last week, I spent two days in the Bank of Mexico in search of data on education and family planning. Admittedly, the work was a bit tedious.  I found reading through dense government records filled with bureaucratic jargon in another language to be particularly challenging. In the end however, the search proved successful. I located surveys that provide key insight into Mexican social values and attitudes towards issues such as family planning, the role of women, and sex education in the 1980s and 90s. I am interested in analyzing how this survey information compares to data on education and health resources. At the end of the first week, I came away with more material than I ever could have expected and hope for similar luck as I move on to the National Archive.

During the weekend, I took time to explore the city. I toured Chapultepec Park and the National Museum of Anthropology on Saturday and then headed south to Coyoacán to visit the home of Frida Kahlo. I also began my quest in search of the perfect taco. Sadly, I realize that my time in Mexico City will go by all too quickly and that I’ll only be able to experience a small part of the entire city. In the next week, I hope to take in as much as possible before traveling to Oaxaca on Monday.

Until next time,

Rachel