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EP18 The Cross-Continental MPH Experience with Rory Curtin
Deborah Onakomaiya: Hey guys, and welcome to another episode of I AM GPH. I am your host, Deborah Onakomaiya. On today's episode, we talk to Rory Curtin who is a Cross Continental student in the Global Health track. Rory shares with us her experience studying and working in Ghana, where she started a rooftop garden. Her public health interests are in food security by improving health through urban farming initiatives. A fun fact about Rory is that for several years, she translated Classical Tibetan scripture in the Northern Indian States Himachal and Ladakh. Let's go to our conversation with her. Thank you so much Rory for coming on our show today, it's awesome to have you here.
Rory Curtin: No, thank you for having me.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So just give us an overview of the cross-continental program. I know you just got back three days ago, so what's unique about the program compared to a traditional MPH program?
Rory Curtin: Yeah, so the Cross Continental MPH is a really small focus group of students. This year there's only 10 of us, and we spend the year split into three different segments that are each really unique, global health experiences. So we were in Washington D.C. for the summer term because it's a one year master's program. So we began in June. We were located in Washington D.C. Then we were in Ghana from August until just a few days ago. And then the group will actually split, and seven of us will go to Abu Dhabi in the springtime and three will go to Florence. And that's sort of dependent on whether you're focusing more on epidemiology or global health. But overall, I mean it's definitely a global health experience.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So are there only two tracks in the program? You are either epi or global health.
Rory Curtin: Yeah. But we take a lot of classes together, and obviously the experiences you have, especially in Ghana, are very global health related because you're working at an internship at a daily basis or at least three or four days a week. So it's inevitable that you're on the ground.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow, that's interesting. And you mentioned that you went to Ghana, so what work were you doing there?
Rory Curtin: I had a fantastic experience working with a small organization called the Urban Poor Children's Organization, which is located in the shanty coastal towns that outlie Accra, so Accra's a really big city. But it had these smaller towns outside of it. And the one I was working in is called Agege Last Stop. And there's a school there that someone who had been a street child himself decided to start, for mainly street children, or families that couldn't really pay their school fees. I started to work with them and they have a really interesting approach where they want whoever comes in to volunteer to dedicate themselves to something that they actually are passionate about. So Gideon is the director, and I first sat down with them and I was like, "Okay, so I'm a global health student, but how can I help?" And I was the only NYU student there, and the first NYU student to work with them, and he was great and he was sort of, "Well, what do you want to work on?". And I'm specialized, we're really focused in food security. And so I was interested in working with himself and the students and the faculty there on developing a curriculum surrounding nutrition and sustainable farming, and sustainable eating practices. So we started a farm on the rooftop of the school. So it's like a garden that the teachers and the students and we all collaborated on. And there's actually a student, an undergrad, who will be going to Ghana for the spring term, who's going to take over the project a few days a week. So yeah, that was my experience.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah. And what type of food are they going to be growing?
Rory Curtin: They eat a lot of peppers and okra in Ghana, so they're growing that, as well as lettuces, and we're trying out cabbage. This is the first time and it's honestly, I'm pretty sure the only rooftop garden in all of Accra. Gideon was great. He told me that he had a parent-teacher conference and the students had come home and told their parents that they were growing tomatoes and all of these things in the roof, and the parents were like, "Wait, we want you to come and do this at our house. Because our kids are coming home."
Deborah Onakomaiya: This was like part of an internship type thing.
Rory Curtin: Yeah. So I was doing this with food security and then there were students in the class. They were working for example, at a place called Marie Stopes International, which is a women's reproductive health organization. So really, just across the board what you were interested in. There's two people doing more policy work at United Nations. So it really gave us the opportunity with such a small group, to talk with our faculty and really find what we wanted to be doing for, it's only four months. So to make the best of that time.
Deborah Onakomaiya: For your time there, how is the work split up? So are you taking classes every single day? Or you said some internships require you to dedicate a certain amount of time. So how is that split up and do you have options in the types of classes that are being offered or there's a set schedule?
Rory Curtin: It's a pretty set schedule with the classes. So we take three classes at the University of Ghana with the University of Ghana faculty in the lecture halls, which is definitely a really unique experience as well because we go as a group three days a week to these different classes, Research Methods, Environmental Sciences and Behavioral Sciences and your intellectual hall with 200 of these Ghanaian students who then end up becoming our friends. And we ended up going out with to dinner and that's definitely a really unique part of the experience. Then we have a fourth class, which is our thesis class, and that's located at NYU’s campus in Legon, which is a different part of the city of Accra. Those are pretty set as far as the internships. Different organizations have different programs. For one year supposed to be there. Mine was much more open where I would literally go there every afternoon, sometimes early in the morning to water plants, but for example, if you're working at the UN and you go every afternoon or three days a week or so.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Who do you feel would be impacted by the work you're doing? You mentioned street children, but in a larger scope, who do you think might be affected?
Rory Curtin: I believe that more than just the children, the connection that I had mainly was with the faculty and people my age who are the teachers of these students. And so then that's still in a very local level. But when schools begin to bring about change, I think that that's when the larger community begins to take notice because you have this little microcosm that's acting on something, taking their own initiative and in a place like Ghana and Accra especially, there's not a lot of government intervention in places like where I was working. The outlying slums are neglected in a lot of ways, and so when one of these communities takes it upon themselves to bring about change, I think that that's when government officials, that are the next step in getting involved, will take notice. So it's really the ideal sort of grassroots growth essentially. I mean ultimately that's what will happen and other schools can replicate the same model. I think that yeah, to answer your question, it's impacting the people that are our age and then hopefully those people can go on to have conversations with policymakers and people in the greater Accra community.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So during your travels, did anything surprise you? I mean, definitely it's a different environment from what we're all used to going to a developing country, things like that. How were you able to adjust in the field on the ground?
Rory Curtin: The people in Ghana are definitely what makes it really easy to adjust. Very, very welcoming, really warm. You hear this before you go, that you'll see more smiles in Ghana than anywhere else. And it's true. You show up and you walk down the street and everyone says hello. So adjusting wasn't that difficult. And I've traveled a lot so I'm sort of used to that, getting used to a new place, but I've never had to have it be so effortless and that the people, they welcome you really easily. Getting used to certain things. I'd say that just the sense of pace, especially if you're coming from New York City, you definitely have a different sense of pace when you get there and you have to take a deep breath and wait for traffic and there's a lot of traffic. You have to wait for restaurants and food and all that. But that's almost, it's nice, because it really brings you, you take a deep breath into the place that you're at and the weather helps with that. You don't want to move too fast when it's 95 degrees every day.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah. And the humidity.
Rory Curtin: Yeah, exactly. But honestly, it's fine. I mean, there's a lot of beautiful places. Accra's a big city, so you don't really go to the beach there. But Ghana's coastline is incredible, so you can go one way or the other. And definitely have a unique experience.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Ultimately it sounds like you've had an amazing experience this far. You're really passionate about what you do. So what drives you every day to continue to work in public health? To continue to want to grow in public health? Attend classes? What drives you?
Rory Curtin: I guess over the past, probably, decade I've been interested in public health, whether it's more on the medical side or now within food security. I've always been interested in sustainable agriculture and how it provides a community and how that community brings about better health. So I guess, through my undergrad I did a lot of work with botany and how a lot of medical traditions and different communities would bring people together and then farming traditions would bring people together. And I noticed how these people always were in really good health because they were supporting one another. And so then when it came time to get a master's, being within the field of public health, was just sort of like a no-brainer. It's how you can then do research and really interact on the ground with these populations but with a greater cost. Because I think when you're doing it as a student, you're not just working for an NGO or something where you're sharing your ideas, you're actually listening as a student, which I love and I think it's essential at this point in our careers. And what drives me forward is to be able to learn enough from these different experiences, which is why something like the cross-continental MPH is awesome because you have really unique experiences at this point in time when we're supposed to be listening and supposed to be learning and then after, when you graduate, whether I personally, I'm hoping to go on for my doctorate, like take that experience and all that I learned there and build on it and when you also have the possibility to focus in realms that you're really interested in, internationally and sort of both make mistakes and learn from them, you take that to the next step as well.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Awesome. So what are you looking forward to? You just got back from Ghana, you have one more semester. So what are you looking forward to?
Rory Curtin: I'm really excited. So I'm writing my master's thesis on an organization that's located in Rome. They're called Bakoma, and it's a group of Malayan refugees that originally came to Southern Italy and migrated North and started an organic local yogurt company. And so I'm doing an evaluation of them for my thesis and each weekend I'll be working with them, living in Florence and then taking the train up. And I'm really looking forward to developing that project. And because ultimately, I'd like to work in food security in New York and other urban settings. And what they're doing is such an amazing model where they're not only supplying local milk to make their yogurt, as refugees in Italy, which is actually quite an accomplishment, especially right now with a lot of political tension. And on top of it, they're delivering it on bicycles and they're doing a lot of outreach in farmer's markets and Rome, as far as a lot of cities are concerned and in Europe, especially in Italy, isn't as progressive as far as organic, local, natural foods. And so I'm really excited to see how they've been so successful in building this business and bring that back to, hopefully, New York where I'd like to continue doing that work.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So five years from now you're going to still be working in food security.
Rory Curtin: Yes. It'll be somewhere in Brooklyn.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Hey for Brooklyn. Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on our show today. It was amazing to have you on.
Rory Curtin: Thank you so much for chatting. It was great to meet you.