Internship offers recipe for discovery
Thanks to funding from the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship (QES) Program and a partnership with Farmers Helping Farmers, two UPEI Foods and Nutrition students were able to participate in an international research and development project in Kenya during the summer of 2019.
The five-year project, led by John VanLeeuwen at the Atlantic Veterinary College, was started in 2015, integrating veterinary and nutrition research and development work. Fourth-year students Julia Heckbert and Haley MacKenzie left for Kenya in May, spending a three-month internship working with women’s groups and farmers to better understand their traditional food practices. They first learned about the opportunity through Dr. Jennifer Taylor, professor with the UPEI’s department of Applied Human Sciences.
“She is very passionate about the work she does in Kenya and shares her experiences with the classes that she teaches,” says Haley.
“This opportunity provides a great experience for students who have a desire to learn about other cultures,” says Dr. Taylor, who has travelled to Kenya eight times as part of nutrition research and development projects. “The internship provides experiential education, increasing students’ experiences working with diverse cultures and creates global citizens, which is consistent with the goals of the QES program.”
The students' ambitious work involved three main tasks: delivering nutrition education sessions to small groups of Kenyan women who would deliver similar education sessions to larger women’s groups; conducting interviews with local women about farming and nutrition to assess the effectiveness of the agriculture and nutrition programming; and, completing school meal program assessments. They worked closely with translators and school officials, and documented their findings.
“It’s difficult to describe a typical day,” Julia says. “Some days we would go to a school for an assessment, or we would do four different one-on-one interviews with women using the Farmers Helping Farmers questionnaire. Other days we carried out a nutrition education session or visited the local hospital to learn about the role of dietitians at their facility.”
“Our biggest task was interviewing women to collect data,” Haley says. “We planned to interview 70 women and each interview took around one hour to complete. Most days we would leave in the morning and aim to do three to four home interviews, which would take us to about 3:00 or 4:00 pm and then we would head home to enter the data.”
Julia and Haley also participated in traditional meal preparation methods while leading their education sessions, cooking with local women.
“We trained five women selected from a women’s group to be the ‘champions’ or leaders of the session,” Julia says. “They learned nutrition messages, then helped us cook the modified traditional meals and present the knowledge and food to the rest of their women’s group.”
Between the demands of their research tasks, Julia and Haley captured their experiences while writing blog posts on the Farmers Helping Farmers website.
“I did enjoy talking about my experiences on the blog because it was a great way to keep my friends and family at home informed and updated on what we’d been up to,” Haley says. “I have these blogs saved on my computer as well and it’s nice to look back and read them, almost like a journal.”
“I had never written a blog before and I was reluctant to start, but I think it is important for those contributing to Farmers Helping Farmers to see where their money is going and what the organization is actually doing in Kenya,” Julia says. “We only saw a portion of the projects being done, but we learned a lot.”
“There is no better way to learn about a culture than to be directly immersed like we were.”
The work was demanding and rewarding, but there was also time for leisure activities and some sightseeing.
“It wasn’t all work,” Julia says. “We were able to visit the elephant orphanage and giraffe manor in Nairobi, go on safari, and visit Hell’s Gate National Park and Crescent Island. We also travelled to the coast and went to the beach on our week long break.”
As the students reflect on their internship, they share many amazing stories and memories of the Kenyan people.
“I loved all the work that we did,” says Haley. “The best part of the experience for me was the people that I met, both those that I grew closer with over the summer and those that I only met once or twice. Many Kenyans that we visited live in poverty and struggle to put food on the table, but yet they are the most joyful people you’ll ever meet.”
“There is no better way to learn about a culture than to be directly immersed like we were,” Julia says. “We actually learned Swahili and the local language of Kimeru while living in Kenya and found that culturally we are more similar than we are different.”
The experience positively changed their perspectives on their lives in Canada, and their future academic and professional goals.
“This experience has enhanced my desire to do research in the future,” Julia says. “I would like to incorporate research and continued learning into my future plans.”
“I decided to return to Kenya for three weeks this summer to complete the second part of my placement,” Haley says. “So this experience definitely changed my plans. It has also led me to lean towards working in public and population health as an international dietitian because I really enjoyed working outside of Canada.”