Members of Columbia’s inaugural cohort of Obama Scholars spoke about their work conducting public healthcare research, finding cost-effective diagnosis and treatment options, and raising feminine hygiene awareness at the first roundtable event of the semester Tuesday evening.
The panel—“Public Health Roundtable with Obama Scholars,” moderated by newly appointed Dean of Undergraduate Global Engagement Shannon Marquez—was a collaboration between Columbia World Projects and the recently rebranded Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement, previously known as Office of Global Programs and Fellowships. As the first in a series, the panel exemplified a broader effort across the University to engage undergraduates in global initiatives, such as recent attempts to increase collaboration between CWP and the undergraduate body.
In attendance were Obama Scholars Gabriela Galilea, Elvis Nukam Ndansi, Peter Ndayihereje, and Vanessa Paranjothy, a few of the inaugural 12-member Obama Scholar cohort on Columbia’s campus and the 37-member cohort nationwide. All four scholars have extensive experience in public health—either having practiced medicine, founded companies, conducted research, or performed fieldwork in different countries before coming to Columbia.
Panelists spoke extensively about the motivation for their work and encouraged students to reflect on their own experiences and find their calling. Ndansi—the founder and president of Unite for Health Foundation, an organization that promotes access to basic healthcare in Cameroon—shared a personal story about the difficulties of his work.
“When I got recognized as a nurse, and I was posted in a remote area, there was one health center that was covering five to 10 different villages, so people around the neighboring villages had to walk long distances to come [here],” Ndansi said. “It was at this place on this unfortunate day that [I encountered] a lady [who] had trekked for eight hours just to get access to our clinic with a baby tied on her back … I helped this woman untie the baby on her back just to realize that the baby was dead and she did not know … That was one of the most challenging moments of my career as a nurse.”
Galilea, who is from Paraguay and is the CEO and founder of Okimo Vision Ltd., spoke about her reasons for starting the medical diagnostics company in 2014.
“I was inspired by my own story because I have an eye condition called strabismus. ... As a child, my parents would have to drive me to another country in order to get treatment. 30 years later, I wanted to know if things have changed and, doing some research, I realized that nothing has changed,” she said. “I wanted to do something and use technology in order to bring diagnostics and treatment to any patient in any corner of the world that is in need at a third of the current market price.”
Today, Ndansi and Galilea continue work on their ventures as Obama Scholars. Ndansi has established three micro-clinics in Cameroon, and his organization currently provides healthcare to more than 35,000 Cameroonians. He emphasized the importance of collaboration in his time at Columbia.
“Now we are working to come up with a unique model of our micro-clinic that can be replicated anywhere in Africa, not just in Cameroon. While here [at Columbia], I work with some students at the Columbia School of Architecture, and we are redesigning the model, which I brought to include some facilities that I never thought about when I was coming for the program. I think, in the next couple of years, we will be able to see Unite for Health Foundation micro-clinics in every country with the same design … just like McDonald’s.”
Some scholars also touched on the problems of day-to-day operations, but highlighted the importance of treating each circumstance as a learning experience.
“When it comes to public health, don’t think that you can provide excellent healthcare unless you understand your patients or your patient programs. And [in order] to understand those programs, you need to live with [the people],” Ndayihereje said. “We tell [our patients] that actually we are not helping them—we are working with them.”
Paranjothy, co-founder of the menstrual hygiene company Freedom Cups, echoed that sentiment, further encouraging students to evaluate their experiences holistically.
“Yes, there are a lot of challenges, of course, but just take it in your stride. The no’s are just as important as the yes’s.”
Marquez told the audience to stay tuned for the next event in the series, a panel on civic and youth activism, which will be held next month. Details for this event have not yet been announced.