The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad

S t u d y A b r o a d R e s e a r c h C o n t e x t A couple of months before beginning my study abroad experience in Sen-egal, I was accepted into medical school through an early application program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. At the time, however, I felt very ambivalent towards beginning a career in medicine. I had always loved the humanities, and I felt that speaking foreign languages and learning about other cultures were some of the most exciting things I could do. After
more » ... research in Senegal, especially in the rural district of Kédougou, my attitude towards the fi eld of medicine changed dramatically. From the time I spent in the bustling capital city of Dakar, but mostly from the weeks in rural villages of Senegal, I witnessed a level of poverty and a standard of living that I had previously only read about. I had heard about chronic hunger, malnutrition, and high infant mortality, but I did not know what these terms meant on a human scale. In reaction, I went through a number of phases. At fi rst, I was almost in a state of shock and I was overcome with a desire to help-this was what helped me make up my mind to continue on to medical school after returning to New York City. However, after this I slowly entered a phase of disillusionment from speaking with NGO leaders and government health offi cers in Dakar who cast the problems as too complicated and too entrenched to solve. Then a more profound change in my thinking occurred; the more time I spent in the villages, the more I realized that, in spite of the periods of hunger, in spite of unsanitary conditions that lead to diarrhea and infant mortality, in spite of the ephemeral access to health care, the vast majority of the villagers are happy. Among other things, the villagers rely on extended family structures that are rooted in rich cultural traditions that provide a resilient system of communal support. I also realized that, in many ways, these communal systems of support are largely absent in our relatively "healthy" American society. Consequently, I came to the conclusion that I had as much to benefi t from and to learn in the rural villages of Senegal, as the villagers had to benefi t from any improvements in health that modern medicine could bring. In other words, I came to believe that for any health or development project to be successful, it must have a comprehensive cultural understanding, it must acknowledge its own limitations