Despite the demands of her doctoral program at Loma Linda School of Medicine, Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellow Arti Desai has always made time for service.
Desai is currently completing her Fellowship project at the Perinatal Institute at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, where she is implementing a preconceptional and prenatal health education program, balancing her studies with her desire to ensure that pregnant women or those trying to conceive will have access to culturally and linguistically appropriate information about maternal risk factors that contribute to adverse pregnancy outcomes.
And for the past two summers, Desai has traveled to the rural village of Tuni Grande in Peru, where she led a group of students working to raise awareness among villagers about clean water, sanitation, and hand washing.
Desai first traveled to Peru in June 2013, just after she earned her Master’s in Public Health from Loma Linda University. She went as a member of the Global Health teaching team for a course called Integrated Community Development (ICD), which takes Global Health students abroad to practice public health. “The ICD course is a chance for students to practice what they had learned throughout the school year and apply it in a real world international setting,” Desai explains. “It is a chance to let the world be the classroom.” When she led a second group of students back to Peru in 2014, among them was Ladi Khoddam, who is also now a Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellow and working on a project aimed at increasing community engagement among HIV positive youth.
Desai was happy and humbled to find that villagers still remembered her upon her return to Tuni Grande. “They greeted me with huge hugs, vibrant smiles, and open arms,” she recalls. “They remembered me and the work we did in the past year. It made me and the student group really motivated and inspired to work with the community members again.”
Desai and her students each spent a week living with a local family, in order to help students learn about villagers’ day-to-day routines, joys, and challenges. “I believe that this experience is very rewarding for both the students and families,” says Desai. “My hope is that the work we’ve done truly aids in mending the gaps present within the community. Every time I visit these families I am amazed at their resilience, spirit, and hospitality and I hope students are inspired from this hands on, real world experience.”
That’s not to say there weren’t challenges in being a “foreigner.” “We go in with the best intentions but sometimes it can be difficult for outsiders to understand how to help,” says Desai. “However, whatever we do should also be sustainable.” Being a woman sometimes poses challenges as well, she notes, especially in male-dominated communities. “From an instructor perspective, my concern is always whether students are learning and inspired in an international environment, especially with the language barrier, cultural differences, climate, food, water, and toilets all posing challenges throughout this trip—along with the added challenge of high elevation and altitude sickness present in Peru.”
Despite those challenges, Desai found both the people, and the landscape, to be beautiful. “From the intricate Incan ruins, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, magnificent Machu Picchu, the capital city of Lima, to the historic site of Cusco and to our field site in Tuni Grande, Peru is filled with mesmerizing contrasts between traditional and modern influences,” she says. “Being a California native I was awestruck by Peru, its people, and their customs and way of life.”