An Interview with Michelle Eilers, Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow

Michelle in Belen

Michelle in Belen, Chile with Aymara physician Don Basilio and Señora Benita

Michelle Eilers is a senior at Tufts University, where she studies Anthropology and Community Health. In the spring of 2009, Michelle participated on the SIT Study Abroad Chile: Culture, Development, and Social Justice program in Valparaiso. Originally from central Texas, Michelle has worked with Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants. She became interested in minority-related health disparities when she had an internship and later worked at a small, family-practice clinic in rural central Texas. Michelle was recently awarded the first Alice Rowan Swanson fellowship, which provides grant money for SIT Study Abroad alums to pursue projects relating to human rights. To read more about Alice Rowan Swanson, click here. To learn more about the fellowship guidelines and to download an application, click here.

Why did you decide to do SIT Study Abroad in Chile?

When looking at study abroad programs, I knew that I wanted to study in Chile, and I was attracted to the possibility of working with a community and conducting independent research while abroad, rather than simply taking university classes.  I was attracted to the program theme in Valparaíso and I knew that I did not want to live in a city as large as Santiago, so I chose the program on Culture, Development, and Social Justice.
What was your independent study project (ISP) in Chile, and how is that connected to the work you will be doing in Chile this coming January?

birthing room

A new Aymara birthing room at a hospital in Arica, Chile

My independent study project focused on the pregnancy and birthing practices of indigenous Aymara women, who live in northern Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.  I looked at how the traditional practices have shifted due to Chilean Ministry of Health norms and trends towards increased modernity, as well as the current processes in place to maintain these traditions.  The work I will do in January focuses on a particular program called Utasanjam usuña (which means “to give birth as in our house,”) which was implemented in the northern city of Arica to provide Aymara women with a traditional birthing room that provided the appropriate herbs and treatment from an Aymara doctor within the local hospital, to ensure safe deliveries.  I will work with the organization that implemented the program, PESPI (Special Program for Health and Indigenous Communities) to assess the awareness of the program for the Aymara population, and how it is being received by Western medical professionals and the Aymara community.
Why did you decide to apply for this fellowship, and what do you hope to get out of it?
Upon return to school this summer, I felt that I was unable to fully assess the situation I had investigated during the ISP period, and I wanted to provide the community with a tangible and useful resource that would facilitate the process of retaining cultural birthing practices.  I was unsure of how to find enough funding to be able to return to Chile, until I read about the Alice Rowan Swanson fellowship, which is an amazing opportunity for an SIT alum to give back to the community where they studied.

Michelle with physicians

Michelle with two Aymara physicians

How will this fellowship influence your next steps, and what do you plan to do after you graduate from Tufts?

The fellowship allows me to understand the process of independent research and facilitate my career plans to work with similar communities.  Through my coursework at Tufts and my experience in Chile, I have learned and witnessed firsthand the discrimination that impoverished communities suffer from, and my goal is to make meaningful contributions to such groups to help improve their health status.  I plan to apply for a Fulbright or Rotary Scholarship to work with a maternal health program in South America, and I aspire to attend medical school and complete an MD/MPH, with a focus on international medicine.  Following this, I plan to continue working in international health development in Latin America.

How has SIT Study Abroad shaped the way you look at the world?

SIT Study Abroad provided me with eye-opening experiences that I would likely have never experienced otherwise; I was able to live with families of different social strata and experience life in both a rural and urban setting.  Apart from greater language comprehension, I am now more aware of distinct cultural notions and how to navigate differences in cultures.  Additionally, the program introduced me to the field of international development, through the lens of human rights and social justice, and allowed me to more fully understand global issues and how to think about international concerns of which I was previously unaware.

This entry was posted in Education, Field Notes, Inspired To Act, International Development, SIT Study Abroad and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to An Interview with Michelle Eilers, Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow

  1. Jennifer Piccin says:

    Good morning!

    I was wondering if anyone could direct me to any research findings that came from Michelle’s work in Chile. I am currently working on a very similar project here in Bolivia and am looking to learn from the experiences of other researchers in the field.



  2. Whitney Medved says:

    Awesome! So, so awesome!

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