Guest blogger, Areej Hussein, undergraduate student in nutrition

Typical fruit vendor in the streets of Cebu city where the infamous and tasty Cebuano mangoes are sold.

As a recipient of the Class of 1938 Summer Abroad Research Fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to the Philippines this summer to explore my Honors thesis research topic: the impacts of early childhood malnutrition on young women’s reproductive health and childbearing. I traveled to the Philippines extremely nervous at first because I had never done anything like this before. Deciding to spend two months in a country I had never seen before to pursue a research project was something that challenged my comfort zones. Nevertheless, I was excited to embark on this journey where I could meet new people, learn new things, and experience a new way of life.

While there, I was mentored by amazing researchers from the Office of Population Studies Foundation (OPS) at the University of San Carlos in Cebu, whose Cebu Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey (CLHNS) is a collaboration with UNC’s Carolina Population Center. My OPS mentor, Ms. Josephine Avilla, has been extremely supportive and a pivotal part of this research project.  Without her guidance and connections, this would not have been possible. My research included engaging in focus group discussions and in-depth interviews with young Filipina women on topics related to relationships and childbearing decisions, an effort to contextualize my quantitative data analyses.

The participants of the focus group were women from Ritazo, a community-based initiative run by women in an urban poor neighborhood in Mandaue City, Philippines. These talented women take scraps of materials donated to them by a furniture company and turn them into beautiful bags and merchandise to generate a source of income for themselves and families. These women, in addition to raising children and maintaining their homes, were earning money for their families and taking on leadership roles in their community. I am forever grateful to these women who trusted me enough to share stories of their livelihoods as they participated in this research project.

In addition to the focus group discussion, I conducted in-depth interviews with young women most of whom work as research assistants at OPS. Unlike the women of Ritazo, these women were closer in age to me and it amazed me how much I was able to relate to them in these interviews. These interviews felt more like conversations I was having with my friends rather than a research-participant style of interaction. These conversations were also insightful and brought to light many themes that would add perspective as I am analyzing the quantitative data. I am currently drafting a detailed summary of my findings, including these themes, intending to disseminate this information to all of the women who participated in this study. I strongly believe that the goal of research should be to benefit the community who graciously agreed to take part in it and who without the research would not exist.

During my stay, I also had the opportunity to attend a two-day data analysis workshop led by my professor and mentor Dr. Linda Adair. This workshop brought together researchers from different institutions across the Philippines to discuss data dissemination and analysis for a national population study carried out by OPS as an effort to better understand the “Filipino child”. It was inspiring to witness the excitement in the room for this kind of work and how invested these researchers were in bettering their country. In this workshop, I also heard stories about research field workers risking their lives to obtain research data. These dedicated researchers would travel to some of the most inaccessible and dangerous parts of the Philippines manually collecting data using pen and paper, which then students and researchers, like myself, have the convenience of accessing on a computer with just a click of a button. Learning about the risks involved in data collection and witnessing the effort that goes into editing and coding the data in the OPS office made me appreciate the research data more.

Akong Pamilia (“my family”) –celebrating my birthday at the office. OPS

While the purpose of my trip was to conduct research, what I gained was far more valuable than data. Here I gained a family that made me feel more at home than an outsider! Many greeting me with “Assalamu alaikum” (a greeting that Muslims use translating to “Peace be Upon you”) even when they were not Muslims themselves was one of the many ways that people tried to welcome me. I also gained a small glimpse of a beautiful culture that embraces everything that is love and community! I gained stories of resilience and faith that left me more than inspired! During a time where I longed to go home to Sudan but could not because of the political unrest, the Philippines became my home! I saw my people in their hospitality and their love for one another! I had an extremely positive experience and I am forever grateful to Dr. Linda Adair, the Class of 1938 Fellowship, and Honors Carolina for their immense support throughout this experience and making it possible!

Beautiful waters of Moalboal,Cebu, Philippines.

In addition to research, I had the opportunity to experience island hopping and explore as much as I can of this beautiful archipelago.

– Areej