Mexico on my Mind…Always

photo(3)I’ve been back from Mexico for a while now, and I can safely say that while Mexico was on my mind occasionally before I studied abroad, it is now on my mind, always. That’s the beauty of these programs, because the on-the-ground experience of rooting yourself in a different country for multiple weeks makes it so that those roots will always stay with you, and can affect so many of the things we think about on the everyday basis.

 

 

 
I want to talk about the many small things that I loved about Mexico, because it’s always the nuanced things that tend to fall through the crack, but manage to touch our hearts the most. First, I met some wonderful people in Mexico. I had a host mom named Amalia who was like a grandma to me. She cooked the most amazing Mexican dishes for us. I lived with other people on the program, and I couldn’t help but feel like it was a real family every dinner. Dinners were lively, energetic, fun, and a cacophony of English, Spanish, broken English, broken Spanish, and Spanglish. Even through the language barriers, we were still a family and did things the Mexican way. We became friends with a girl who already lived in the house, and she took us around to the city and let us experience what local Mexicans experience. But my favorite times were our random late night talks about the worlds we come from, the things we have in common or don’t have in common, and about life in general. And even though my Spanishphoto(4) was poor, I somehow made wonderful human connections with people who I found were not so different from me. I went to many culturally rich places in Mexico, such as Chapultepec, Teotihuacan, Xochimilco, etc., but watching movies on reclining seats, going salsa dancing, bowling, karaokeing, ice cream tasting, etc. with our friends from the medical school at Universidad Panamericana was like the icing on the cake.

 

 

 

Just in class the other day, I realized exactly how lucky I was to be able to study abroad. The concepts that we talked about made that much more sense after going to Mexico and after experiencing first-hand some of those things. I found myself constantly reflecting on everything that I learned, touched, experienced, and felt in Mexico. I wasn’t thinking from the standpoint of just me, the girl from the United States anymore. I was thinking from the standpoint of me, the girl who has experienced a different world. I think all the time about the people I now care deeply about from that world and their lived experiences. My thoughts became integrative, and that’s when it hit me that Northwestern has succeeded in turning me into a better global citizen, one who recognizes when things are taken for granted. Humans can’t help but be ethnocentric sometimes, in the sense that we judge everything based on the values of our own cultures, but I’d like to think that going abroad has helped me become even less ethnocentric.

We take so many things for granted, such as clean water, and only when we are in a different place do we realize how others live their lives. In Mexico, the tap water is not safe to drink, and even though I knew that, I still had to constantly negotiate my surroundings and everything I knew to understand and adapt to these circumstances. I think that’s what being a global citizen is all about, proactively negotiating our surroundings and everything we thought we knew. Like a phoropter with all its lenses, I feel as if a lens of the global world around us has been added to mphoto(5)y own individual lenses, allowing me to perceive the world through a different frame. I mentioned in my first post that Mexico is a country that borders our country, but for a country so close and vital to the story of America, how much do we really know about it? Well, now I am more than aware that Mexico is not the drug-ridden, violent and war-torn country that the US paints it to be, but a country shaped by imperialism and its vast history. I am not saying that everything is peachy-keen here, because instability is wide-spread, but it is a country with wonderful people, values, and a culture worth experiencing. This lived experience has brought me to understand that it’s not me vs. them, but us now, and it is something I hope to keep in my life and all my undertakings in the future.

Since I’ve been gone…from Mexico

Sunny California

Well it is now September and school is starting up. In my family September signifies more than the start of school – it is the month Mexico gained its Independence. The 16th , according to my mom is called El Dia del Grito, the day of the shout. Everyone who celebrates this momentous day in Mexican history goes around shouting Viva Mexico! Although this day isn’t important to some, it holds much significance to my family. Not to mention having celebrated this day this year made me realize how much I miss Mexico City and life abroad. Although living in a Mexican household does much to remind of my time there, I still miss the deep history and friends I found this summer while studying in Mexico City. Upon arriving to California from my summer abroad, I was happy and excited to spend my remaining weeks in sunny California relaxing with family and friends.

However, I must admit, a part of me really missed Mexico. I missed waking up and walking to school with my peers every morning. I missed the small adventures my family in Mexico and I would have on a whim. It wasn’t hard adjusting to life in the U.S, however I must admit I do miss the easily accessible Oaxacan Hot Chocolate only our host mom, Amalia, knew how to make perfectly. One thing I can say is that studying abroad has really broadened my perspective on life and career interests. Although medicine is still something I enjoy learning and reading about, public health may be something I’d like to study and do in my life. Nonetheless, I really appreciate this summer abroad. Besides granting me knowledge of my roots and better understanding of my culture, this summer abroad has taught me that life is what you make it. There are many paths to certain careers. One just need to find their own, no matter how long it takes.

Final Thoughts and Reflections

Leaving Mexico at the end of my program was an unbelievably sad experience for me. Though it may have taken me a week or two to get adjusted, Mexico City really grew on me and I began enjoying everything it had to offer immensely. Ironically, the time I was enjoying it the most was also only a few days close to the end.

But like all good things, the Public Health program in Mexico had to come to a close. And back in the United States, I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I learned from studying abroad.

Funnily enough, the two biggest takeaways for me arguably have little to do with each other. The first for me was understanding the flexible nature of how research can be conducted. Before coming to Mexico, I had in my mind an underlying assumption that research, at least most of the time, was conducted in a lab wearing a white labcoat. Coming to Mexico and taking part in the Malinalco biostatistics analysis demonstrated to me that research is extremely diverse and can encompass numerous fields, methods, and topics. Math and field surveys can be just as informative and as useful as mixing chemicals together, and taking part in that research has opened my eyes and broadened my horizons in searching for future opportunities in public health, or even research at large.

The other takeaway is more of a personal issue that applies to my life as a whole, and that’s my social life. I have to admit that before I went on this program, I was a very isolated and solitary individual who mostly kept to himself, his studying, and the internet. Coming to this program and regularly interacting with both the rest of my NU friends and the UP medical students have showed me just how exciting, fun, and meaningful extensive social interaction can be. I only have one year left in NU, but because of my experiences I have made a promise to myself to be more social and more open to others when I step back into university life. There’s little doubt in my mind that coming to Mexico has changed my perspective and how I think about the world around me for the better, and now it is up to me to convert those lessons into bettering my life.

Public Health in Mexico Final Picture

Mexico in a New Light

It’s been nearly a month since I said goodbye to my friends and host family in Mexico City and returned to the United States. While I will surely miss the spicy food and wonderful people, it’s comforting to be back in Evanston with the prospect of a busy and exciting fall quarter.

In the past few weeks I’ve had time to digest my experiences from this crazy summer. I found studying abroad in Mexico to be incredibly enlightening for many reasons. Before leaving the United States, whenever I mentioned studying abroad in Mexico, many people would respond with “Ooh, I’ve been to Cancun and it’s beautiful!” or something of a similar fashion. I did not talk to a single person who had ever visited Mexico other than to stay at a vacation resort. In fact, I noticed that the American perception of Mexico is extremely flawed and short-sighted. Our media tends to portray the country as a war-zone, with drug cartels killing innocent civilians left and right and migrants fleeing into the United States to escape poverty and violence. While violence and drugs are undoubtedly an issue in Mexico, many people lack the vision of the country I gained after studying abroad.

The people I met in Mexico were all extremely welcoming. Many of them were pursuing an education just like myself, and wanted to devote their careers to building a better Mexico that alleviates poverty, bolsters education, and improves the living conditions of all its citizens. The violence portrayed in the American media seemed to be minimal and localized in areas where drug cartels have the most influence (states bordering the US and the Pacific). The crime was no more severe than what one would witness in any major American city. Overall, the American perception of Mexico was simply not accurate.   

I also gained some important insights into the public health system of the country while studying abroad. As our southern neighbor, the public health of Mexico is influenced by and impacts the health situation in the United States, especially with the recent migration of many Mexican immigrants into the US. It is not a coincidence that two of the countries with the highest rates of obesity in the world are neighbors. Mexico deals with health problems similar to those in the United States. Chronic, non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease dramatically increase the cost of health care in the country. The US can no longer pretend that the health condition of Mexican citizens and migrants is not our problem when our economies are so heavily intertwined.

Finally, I noticed that in tackling the public health problems, Mexico has other issues it needs to address to improve the health situation. While we spent most of our trip in Mexico City, where nearly a third of the country’s population resides, we also visited the rural area of Malinalco. Rural populations tend to be marginalized, experience greater levels of poverty, and their access to health care is secondary to those who live in the capital state. With half the country’s population living below the poverty level, Mexico has a long way to go in bringing equitable living conditions and access to quality medical care to all of its citizens.

Overall, my time in Mexico was an amazing experience and I would not have wanted to study anywhere else. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to learn about a country that is important to the United States while also practicing my Spanish skills. Now that I’m back home, I look forward to using my experiences this summer to educate people about the truth of Mexico. I hope that my insight will combat the stigma against Mexicans so that our countries can continue working together to create a better life for citizens of both countries.

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Help and Do No Harm

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One of the highlights and most exciting aspects of this program was the research. Every week, I’d look forward to going to the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Medicas y Nutricion Salvador Zubiran, which was in the center of a bustling and lively neighborhood. We conducted research at CAIPaDi, which is a center for comprehensive care of patients with diabetes, comprehensive being the key word! Diabetes is a growing global epidemic, but it is a prominent issue in Mexico that affects around 12% of the population, and is intertwined with so many other areas of health such as chronic kidney disease.

At CAIPaDi, the approach to tackling the diabetes problem is through a truly comprehensive empowerment of the patients. It is a great model and step towards preventative care and informed self care. Throughout the four visits over a span of four months, there are 9 different stations that patients must participate in, including: endocrinology, psychiatry, psychology, foot care, ophthalmology, nutrition, diabetes education, physical activity, and odontology. As patients make their rounds through each station, they get to attend both individual and group sessions with the doctors that specialize in each field and with other diabetic patients. We had a chance to sit in on many of these stations. I found this program to be refreshing and enlightening, because a combination of interventions really is needed for holistic care in the combat of diabetes. Also, it is especially meaningful for the patients to feel empowered, because there is nothing more powerful and motivating than knowing that you can make a change in your own well-being.

My experience at CAIPaDi was eye-opening, in a way that being in class could never show me. We worked with the doctors to initiate a clinical research project about the socioeconomic status of the patients at CAIPaDi, in hopes of better understanding the outside factors that could affect how they take care of themselves. And in turn, we hoped that we could find something that could help us level the playing field for the diabetic patients, especially amidst the huge disparities in Mexico. We made our own survey and administered it to the patients. The fun part was that this was all done in Spanish! Although it was intimidating at first, I realized that these challenges reflect the everyday components of the job, because communication and connection are just as important as the care of patients itself. We also had the chance to make impactful digital messages and simple games for the patients regarding foot care, eye care, and hypoglycemia, to provide them with more self-care tools. At the end, we were able to compile the data and even present to all the health professionals who worked at CAIPaDi! Bonus point: the presentation itself was in Spanish!

But the part that I valued most about this experience was the chance to interact with both the doctors and the patients, and to understand each of their stories. As I learned of the circumstances of each of the patients, it was like being given puzzle pieces to add to their whole story. It was also truly a joy to be able to shadow and work with our mentors Dr. Hernandez and Dr. Ulloa, because they supported us every step of the way and pushed us to really embrace different points of view. As doctors, they were adaptable, flexible, caring, and especially integrative. One of my favorite memories is eating Fiber One bars together every afternoon there, because that’s what patients could do to prevent hypoglycemia. So not only did they empower the patients, they empowered themselves and us too. I realized that in the field, not only do you learn, but you also feel, act, think, and connect in a way that takes you out of your comfort zone and motivates your work. These last few weeks of research have brought me closer to understanding what it means to help and do no harm, and what it means to enjoy what you do!
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My Friends in Mexico, the Very Best

When it comes to my study abroad experience, without a doubt some of the most important people in my life throughout the entire 8 weeks were the medical students from Universidad Panamericana. They were my main link connecting me with Mexican culture, and without them it would have taken me a lot longer to integrate to Mexico and the experience as a whole would be so much lonelier without them. From advice regarding the program itself to where the best places to hang out were during the weekends, the students became very valuable friends in such a short time and were incredibly awesome in showing us how to maximize my enjoyment in Mexico.

Several of my favorite moments and social outings in Mexico were only possible because they arranged them. After a long week of studying and doing research, they gave us exactly the breaks that I needed. I still remember the day that they took us to a karaoke bar, and my friends (both from NU and from Mexico) and I spent the entire night singing and dancing without a care in the world. And after that night, they took us to a famous Taco restaurant where we treated us to some of the best tacos I’ve ever had. That was one of the best nights in Mexico I’ve had this entire program, and they kept the excitement going weeks later with a night of salsa dancing (to put what we learned in salsa class to practice) and bowling night a few days later. None of this would have been possible without them, and for that I am forever grateful.

Even though we may have spent such a short time together, I will never forget the friends that I made and what they’ve done for me during this program. Adolfo, Montse, Fer, Andres, Anneke, Hilda, if you’re reading this, thank you for everything!

PH Mexico Final Goodbye

The Beauty of Mexico’s Artisan Markets

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No matter where you go in Mexico, you are sure to find some historical artifact or something unique that peaks your interest about the history of Mexico. In May, the Northwestern students studying abroad in Mexico City for Public Health had a weekend long workshop that taught us everything we needed to know about public health in Mexico and the dos and don’ts of living in Mexico. This workshop was essential in our weekend trip to Malinalco, where we aided students from UP Medical School in administering clinical studies on obesity in that community and was funded by a grant given to us by a 100k Strong Fund. While that in itself was such a rewarding experience, that weekend I was able to experience something else: Malinalco’s own Artisan Market. To be quite honest I wasn’t looking for it, I happened to walk straight into it when exploring the small town one day. Ever since that fateful day, however, in which I found that small treasure, I fell in love with Mexico’s artisan markets. I find that Mexico’s history can be perfectly summarized in its wide range of “Mercados artesanales”. Mexico City has hundreds of artisan markets in itself and each and every one of them is filled with history ready to be explored and magical experiences to be had. This past Sunday we went to the Ciudadela, the biggest Artisan Market in Mexico, in my and many people’s opinion. These markets have small shops with almost any trinket, food, candy, silver and jewelry you can think of. Not to mention prices are very negotiable. I mean what’s going to Mexico and not practicing your bargaining skills while you’re at it? What’s unique about Mexico’s markets, however, is that everything is hand made by the people who run the shop. They do not have any corporate connections and if you need to know specifics of what you are buying, you just ask the small shop keeper. What’s even cooler is the uniqueness of each individual shop and shop owner. If I could spend an entire day at an Artisan Market, I would find that it would not be nearly enough time to see everything and learn what each shop keeper has to say. Each shopkeeper has such a rich history in how they made their products and families’ history, it’s worth your time to ask. So, if you’re ever in Mexico City, make sure you check out one of the many artisan markets. I’m sure you’ll come out with a few gifts and stories to tell.

Why We’re Thankful for the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Grant

My travel day to Mexico was full of surprises. An unexpected flight change. A lack of WiFi in the Mexican airport. A house more colorfully decorated than I could have imagined. This exciting day was followed by an exciting school day where I was hearing a lot of Spanish and understanding only a little. So, after these two exciting-yet-draining days, we walked into school on the third day to an exciting-yet-comforting surprise: familiar faces!

Earlier this year in May, a group of Mexican college students and faculty traveled to Northwestern as part of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas grant. The grant provided us a weekend of academic conferences, focusing on obesity, a topic on which we have been studying in Mexico City.

So, the familiar faces seen on that third day in Mexico City were those of the Mexican students we met in May: Montse, Adolfo, Andres, Anneke, Hilda, and Fernanda.

Knowing these six has been the icing on the cake of our time here. They take us out to karaoke, teach us slang, show us the best late-night tacos, and give us a real connection to life as a college student in Mexico City.

late-night tacos in la Ciudad de México

late-night tacos in la Ciudad de México

More connections came out of that May weekend, too, academic ones. When we’re sitting in Public Health class, speaking with an important Mexican policy-maker about the health outcomes of a Mexican diet, my mind goes back to a May conference led by a Feinberg professor on culturally-appropriate diet changes for Chicago’s Latino populations.

I believe this to be the point of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas grants: tangible connections between students here, students there, ideas here, and ideas there. When I head back to Evanston in the fall, I’ll be bringing back specific Mexican anecdotes, policies, and the impression of Montse, Adolfo, Andres et al. for some sure to be enriching University Hall discussions.

Statistical Research on Malinalco Children

Malinalco Table 2During the second week of the Public Health in Mexico trip, I traveled with public health buddies to Malinalco, where we conducted nutrition and obesity research in an elementary school in this more rural part of Mexico. We recorded a lot of information regarding the children and their parents there, ranging from sociodemographic data (eg. age of children, gender of children, occupations of parents, etc.) to measuring their height and weight. For me, the research opportunity was valuable not only because of the hands-on experience with data collection, but also because I was able to extensively practice my Spanish while communicating with people who grew up with an entirely different language and culture from myself.

For the rest of my friends, the Malinalco experience ended there. For me, it was just beginning. With my mentor from Universidad Panamericana, I have organized the data we have collected from Malinalco and calculated the body mass index (BMI) of each of the children, along with whether or not the child in question was normal, overweight, and obese. The results were….quite surprising to say the least. About 32% of the children were either overweight or obese, which (while this is a definite health problem) matched established records. However, some of the children were EXTREMELY obese. To put this in perspective, children are considered obese when their BMI Z-score is greater than 2. So when you see Z-Scores like 3.7 and 4.6, that’s definitely an issue.

There are two major goals for my research. The first is to use the children’s answers to an obesity questionnaire (which asks multiple questions that determine whether children perceive obesity to be positive, negative, or neutral for health) and try and correlate that to BMI. The second is to correlate the sociodemographic factors I mentioned earlier to BMI as well. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find statistically significant results yet using chi-square tests, but I still have hope in the upcoming weeks!

Researching while Abroad

One of the main reasons why I chose to study abroad in Mexico City was because of the research component built into the program. In the first half of the program we conducted a field study on obesity and nutrition among a population of primary school children and their parents in a rural part of Mexico. This experience was incredibly informative because it allowed me to interact with Mexicans outside of the city and witness how health outcomes vary among the rural and urban populations. Considering that Mexico has the highest childhood obesity rate in the world, I was very surprised to see that a majority of the children were skinny and generally healthy. In fact, the parents and schoolteachers were the ones who tended to be overweight or obese, which may indicate that unhealthy habits become increasingly problematic with age. Overall our study in Malinalco was very unique because it focused on early detection and prevention of diet-related diseases in a rural part of Mexico, something that is very neglected in the country.

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By far the best part of my travels in Mexico has been working with my mentor Dr. Marcela Tamayo, a public health official specializing in environmental health. Dr. Tamayo works at the research facility Centro Medico ABC where she helps organize two birth cohort studies known as ELEMENT and PROGRESS. Both cohorts have followed pregnant mothers and their children for many years, investigating exposure to chemicals and metals such as lead, mercury, BPA and their enduring physiological effects. These studies have been extremely important in further understanding the impacts of prenatal exposure to toxic substances. In fact, one study found that taking calcium supplements during pregnancy is highly effective in reducing lead absorption in bones and can diminish fetal exposure.

The investigators at the research center have been extremely welcoming and have tried to teach us as much as possible about their study and research methods in the short time that we are with them. I have helped develop informational materials in Spanish that describe the investigation and will eventually be given to participants with the hope of increasing their knowledge of the research and boosting their retention in the study. Creating these materials has not only expanded my knowledge of the cohorts but has also improved my Spanish skills by learning how to effectively communicate with native Mexicans through writing. Working with public health officials who have been in the field for many years has been incredibly enlightening and has even helped me direct my future career path. Witnessing field work hands-on has reaffirmed my decision to major in biology and environmental science and ultimately pursue a career in environmental health.