Our next FIMRC alumni blog post comes from Natalie Fiszer, who served as our Field Operations Manager (FOM) in Anconcito, Ecuador from May 2017 to December 2018. Read on to learn more about Natalie’s global health journey and what she’s up to now!
As a foreigner living alone in Latin America, the most common questions I received from new acquaintances were, “do you have a family?” and, “why did you choose to leave the United States?” I would respond that yes, I have family and friends in the States, but that over the years my family network has expanded, encompassing host families, coworkers, neighbors, and peers I met in different corners of the world.
My favorite part of working in global health and development has been the opportunity to travel and immerse myself in different cultures, allowing me to see the world from a new perspective. FIMRC volunteers that visited us in Anconcito often reflected on feeling that same sense of family and belonging, whether they stayed for one week or three months. Being able to share that sentiment of a global community and bring people together from different backgrounds for a common purpose was one of the most rewarding parts of my job with FIMRC.
As an undergraduate student studying International Affairs, I was initially drawn to public health as I learned about the global burden of disease. I began to understand the magnitude of lives lost from preventable illness that could be mitigated by access to education and quality healthcare. Studying abroad in Brazil, I witnessed community health promotion in action for the first time. While conducting research, I spent three weeks shadowing Community Health Workers as they visited as many as 10 families each day. I observed as they reviewed pregnancy warning signs with expecting mothers and discussed medication and diet with chronic disease patients. Through my observations, I learned the value of a community needs assessment and the importance of ensuring local buy-in to implement successful policies.
This experience motivated me to serve in the Peace Corps, where I directed the local implementation of a national health initiative called Healthy Schools, collaborating with teachers, principals, and students from 15 educational institutions. I guided local stakeholders in the realization of community needs assessments and led trainings for educators and health promoters on preventative health -- applying the lessons I learned from my research in Brazil. Upon finishing Peace Corps, I knew that I wanted additional global health experience, which brought me to FIMRC.
When I arrived in Anconcito as the new Field Operations Manager, the project site was in its second year. My predecessor had worked hard to establish a local team and gain the community’s trust, implementing a massive community survey and initiating several health promotion classes. I was able to hit the ground running by continuing projects like Chicas Maravillas and Chicos Superman, and a Child Nutrition Club with local mothers, which were already popular in the community. I valued the time I took getting to know employees of the local health-focused organizations, seeing the work they do every day, and conducting at-home surveys with FIMRC volunteers to learn what the community was looking for next.
FIMRC’s grassroots model allowed our team the flexibility to meet the community where it needed us, and we were able to introduce many new programs. Through surveys, our community identified a desire to learn more about nutrition, chronic disease, and first aid. Because the few health professionals in the area were already overburdened, we organized a course to teach high school students basic health topics, along with training on public speaking and leadership, so that these students could go on to promote health in their own community. This became a successful Youth Health Promoter program, and now regularly local youth from Anconcito work alongside FIMRC volunteers to conduct health education.
Another project I loved working on was establishing the FIMRC Diabetes Club, a program designed by a long-term intern and our staff nutritionist. Although I had never worked with diabetic populations before, I was able to learn about the specifics of diabetes management, including medication, diet, exercise, and mental health best practices -- and support our club members in their own learning. Our club started small, but we developed close relationships with our attendees and I looked forward to our meeting each week. None of our work in Anconcito would have been possible without the support of the local community. The passionate commitment from our local staff and partners to improve their community inspired me every single day.
Since leaving FIMRC, I landed my dream job with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As a 2019 Donald M. Payne International Development Fellow, I am part of a program that provides a unique pathway to employment with the USAID Foreign Service, as well as financial support for graduate studies related to international development. This September, I will begin a two-year Master of Public Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. My studies will focus on epidemiology and infectious disease, and I hope to complement my field experience by gaining technical skills in epidemiological surveillance and disease prevention and control strategies to address public health emergencies.
After graduation, my goal is to work as a Health Officer in the USAID Foreign Service, which involves working at an overseas mission and collaborating with local governments and organizations in the implementation of programs that meet the U.S. Government’s foreign assistance objectives. Unlike my jobs with FIMRC and Peace Corps where I worked one-on-one with communities, I will be providing guidance and oversight on larger development projects implemented by local actors.
Being in the field has been a formative experience for me as a young public health professional. Through my career in grassroots development, I have fostered critical soft skills, including active listening and synthesizing the perspectives of others, motivating and championing those around me to action, and implementing creative solutions in low-resource settings. Moving forward in my career, I aspire to always carry my perspective of community-driven development in public health while empowering and working alongside local counterparts to create sustainable change.