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Breaking the glass ceiling while abroad

Story by Kayli Kunkel

Shortly after arriving in the gritty town of Migori, Kenya, a Medics to Africa physician warned Hannah Reichert and her fellow female interns about knowing their limits. Over a few beers at the hotel bar, they were told the story of former students who fainted during surgery, fell in a puddle of blood and “were never quite the same.” The interns were warned that the Migorian hospital would undoubtedly be like nothing they’ve experienced in the United States, and were told to “mentally prepare.” Welcome, ladies, to Kenya.

Rewind. Reichert knew she wanted a hands-on patient care opportunity abroad to accompany her pre-med track at Drake University and open her eyes to a new cultural experience. After some diligent Internet searching, Reichert arrived at Medics to Africa, a program based out of Mombasa, Kenya. The summer before her senior year of college, Reichert was matched with a program specific to her interests, packed her bags carefully and was off to study abroad
for five weeks.

She could never have imagined what physical and emotional challenges faced her down the red dirt roads to the Migori hospital where she was stationed to delve into the developing world of rural healthcare.


The Globetrotter Gender Gap 

Reichert grew close to her fellow interns on her excursion with the Medics to Africa program, which was not difficult, considering all the interns were women. This trend is not unfamiliar. It is, in fact, growing nationwide. According to recent research, twice as many women as men are studying abroad during college years, even in male-dominated science fields. The trend continues outside of college: today, 66 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are female compared to 34 percent male. These numbers have flipped since the 1950s.

Why is wanderlust tipping  the scale towards women?

Jen Hogan, study abroad coordinator at Drake, attributes the gender divide to an increasing sense of individualism in women of American society.

“Women are more independent today,” Hogan said. “They have a better sense of cultural issues and connectedness, and are willing to separate from
the herd.”

And the facts don’t lie: America’s go-get-‘em women are disproportionately filling study and volunteer roles abroad.

But while American women are making great strides towards global and cultural understanding, the risks run rampant. News broadcasts teem with stories of travels gone awry — Natalee Holloway, the young American student who vanished during a trip to Aruba in 2005, was a media sensation and even has a Wikipedia page — but such stories don’t dent the drives of strong-willed women
wanting to travel.

The question is: Should they?

I Dream (Nightmare) of Africa

Before setting off to Kenya, Reichert decided to record her travel experiences in a blog called “I Dream of Africa.” The blog followed her journey closely, documenting the joys and new experiences, but also the large amount of physical and
mental hardships.

On May 24, 2012, Reichert reflected on her first sweltering walk to the St. Joseph M. Hospital in rural Kenya. Immediately, she was thrown headfirst into hands-on experiences with gory, nauseating wounds tended to in unkempt conditions and an atmosphere of infectious diseases.

Reichert spent time accompanying surgical procedures — in the “Main Theater,” as the surgical room was called — well past her medical school training back at Drake. She wore scrubs of uncertain sterility and rain boots “to stay dry from blood, not rain.” She witnessed bones breaking within her hands, heinously unkempt wounds and crude injuries — most notably, a man attacked with an arrowhead that extended through his face — and the disturbing disposal center called the “Placenta Pit” outside in the dirt.

Reichert wrote about the hindrances of the “unbearable” hospital odors that only grew more intense with the wicked heat of the day. Sanitation was a constant issue. Despite relatively safe accommodations, she fought mice, mosquitoes and other insects, power outages and, occasionally, food that caused stomach problems.

Perhaps the apex of Reichert’s poor environment was her contraction of malaria after leaving that she later recovered from. Though she fought — and succeeded — to adjust to the entirely different world, physical wellbeing was a relentless concern.

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