From: Atlanta, Georgia, USA 🇺🇸
Who: Global Health Fellow @ CDC
Quote of the interview: To me, the unstructured environment is the best way to grow personally. No milestones, no timeline. I just need enough space.
I work as a global health fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). My division works with global HIV prevention, and I am involved in facilitating research projects, program management, and coordination of management and operations-related projects. Before I joined CDC I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan specializing in HIV-related topics from 2013-2015, and then as a domestic violence medical/legal advocate and rape crisis prevention educator (2015-2016) at The Women’s Center in Southern Illinois.
I did my bachelors in biology at Oglethorpe University and my Masters in Public Health at The George Washington University. Right now I am doing another Masters in International Policy Management at Kennesaw State University.
My family lives in Georgia. My mother is a physical therapist and my dad worked as a technician for printing equipment before he retired. I also have two brothers, one of them is a computer programmer in California and another one works as an IT support specialist in Georgia.
I love reading, hiking, and being in nature, I like making art and appreciating it in all forms.
I also really enjoy traveling, I’ve been traveling independently since I was 16 – I’ve always felt that I want to explore the world. Whenever I travel I really try to engage with the local people and make friends. Most of my travels included volunteer work – I worked on farms, I’ve been a trekking guide, I volunteered in hospitals and health clinics, and I’ve worked in sustainable development. In almost all of the 35 countries I visited I did some volunteer work, mostly in public health.
I am a very social person, I generally love everyone and love meeting new people. My friend Nick once told me “You’ve never met a stranger,” which I felt was a fair and sweet description. I like engaging with people of different cultures and building connections with them.
Have you found your way in life?
Yes, luckily, I feel very comfortable with what I want, especially with my long-term path or the bigger picture I have in mind. My vision is to live fully engaging with the world and people around me and make an impact in global health, particularly maternal and child health. I enjoy my passions and always want to be learning, and it’s going well so far!
What’s your story?
Since I was little I felt a little bit different from other people. I often didn’t have a great relationship with my teachers, sometimes they complained I talked to them as if I was equal to them. That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling my whole life – that everyone is equal, that we are all the same.
I was always very social, but I never really had long-term friends. When I was 8 my family moved from New York to Georgia, and one of the biggest challenges of that move and the rest of my time before college was the cultural differences between myself and my neighbors/classmates. Though it wasn’t always present, there was a heavy Christian influence on social and school events, and I often felt left out or pointed-out because my family is Jewish. I didn’t feel different from people around me, but I experienced 10 or so incidents with teachers, friends, or friends’ parents, where I was treated differently, such as being excluded from a social event or otherwise made reference to, because I was not Christian. Those experiences made a big impression on me.
I was never very religious myself, but I was always interested in learning and the reinforcement of the mild anti-Semitism in my town encouraged me to pursue Judaism more, besides my personal, cultural connection. I went to Sunday school, had a Bat Mitzvah, taught Hebrew reading and writing at a Sunday school for several years, went to a Jewish learning summer camp, was a counselor at another, traveled throughout Israel, and even studied in a seminary in Israel. I had a lot of support from the Jewish families who ran the Chabad (Jewish) centers I went to as a child and traveled to as an adult. Being Jewish has always been a special and important part of my identity.
I never studied a lot or did especially well at school. I attended classes, but I mostly went to school to meet and spend time with my friends. In University I became much more serious about my long-term career goals, so took school more seriously, and eventually was performing very well. Since then I have become better at managing the structure of academic life, for the purpose of achieving my dreams.
I developed these ‘dreams’ when I was a teenager and feeling bored at home, and like I should be doing more with my life. I decided to go somewhere the following summer, and chose India based on my fascination with the beautiful scenes in A Little Princess. Because I did not expect my parents to pay, I applied for a scholarship for a student travel program to India, and began saving money from odd jobs. I worked since I was 12, first for the Sunday school and later I worked in a fast food restaurant and in the local Y.M.C.A. In university I worked at a private training gym, a flower shop, at the university gym, a chemistry tutor, and as a summer camp counselor for two summers.
During graduate school I worked as a private nanny, a university chemistry teacher, and a research assistant. So planning my India trip, and the other summer and winter breaks from the university in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, came with the help of those regular side jobs and a lot of enthusiasm.
The India trip was actually pretty short-lived, I was dismissed from the program after only two weeks due mostly to non-cooperation. In the days after my group left me, I experienced the Himalayas and then Thailand alone, where I was able to get a short job as a camp counselor for Chabad. The independence was much more suited to my style and I became more self-aware and in touch with who I was and what I enjoyed, specifically, see the world and its nature and sites and meeting people across cultures. I am myself most where there is less rigid structure.
For a long time I never really thought too much about where and why, I’ve always just wanted to go somewhere, wanted to be somewhere completely different. I wanted to see how I would deal with all these new situations, and I’ve never had a bad experience.
When I was in India I saw a lot of kids with polio. I was shocked to learn that, though there was a had not be made available to them. I wanted to help ensure that preventable illnesses were prevented, so I first thought to be a doctor. I went to Oglethorpe University on the recommendation of a friend from high school and managed to get a full scholarship to this private, liberal arts school. Looking back, I know this fortune and Oglethorpe as a whole incredibly supported my growth, and I don’t think I would have been opened and nurtured so much at another institution.
Besides my jobs and studying, progressively with more sincerity, I cared deeply about my next trip. I was always fantasizing about my next trip and sending emails to organizations which I found online, which would let me volunteer and stay and eat for low or no cost. I chose the destinations based on whoever answered my emails and the lowest cost of the plane ticket. I made many friends from all over the world, with locals and other international volunteers. I loved every minute of every place.
At the end of college one of my favorite professors suggested I explore public health, rather than medicine. I had not heard of that, but when I looked into it made much more sense to me – it is health practice focused on prevention of disease. Public health includes social programs to provide support, and treatment programs to help people improve their health and not spread illness, it is a very wide field of social-science which was where I wanted to make my impact.
So I did my Masters in Public Health in Washington, DC. I didn’t love the more distant atmosphere of the school, especially compared to the intimacy of Oglethorpe, but I made some great friends there. Once in the dorm I smelled food cooking and knocked on the door across the hall. A Pakistani guy invited me to join him for dinner and I spent the next 2 years hanging out with him and his Fulbright and other friends. They were wonderful people and almost all my good memories of that time include eating a Pakistani meal on one of their floors.
I always wanted to be in the Peace Corps, and my plan before grad school was to do a combined grad-Peace Corps program. I thought it would be a great way to live in a developing country for a long time and develop my skills and resume in a semi-structured environment. I wanted more than a few months summer or winter break to make an impact and learn about a certain place. I wanted to learn another language, make connections in the local community, and make a difference in a health-related topic. So with Peace Corps I went to Kyrgyzstan for two years and three months.
I had a wonderful time in Peace Corps, though I was placed in a capital city and not in a more rural setting like I had hoped. I spent a lot of time learning Russian, meeting people and building relationships. I was placed at the National AIDS Center and was involved in many programs including facilitating a UNDP summer camp program for HIV-positive children. I met several mothers of these children, who shared their stories with me. Some asked for help with an NGO they had tried to start. They told me about some terrible treatment they experienced at the Haden of international organizations and health practitioners and others in their communities. Their children were infected with HIV in the local hospitals.
After the camp I started a social support program for women with HIV positive children in the capital, and facilitated another program with the NGO of the women from the UNDP camp.I got sponsorship from Peace Corps and flew each month to the South to meet with these women, as well as facilitated the program in the North, for six months.
Also while in Peace Corps, I organized a creative writing club for one year and then a book club for another year for people who wanted to learn English at the American Corners of the public library. I got funding from the US Embassy for the books, and help the club every week.
Book club had a big discussion element – we discussed gender issues, sexuality, freedom, issues of power, and a lot of other abstract concepts that we found in the books and related to the local life. Generally, in Kyrgyzstan people don’t really discuss these topics or have as abstract or conceptual debates, and everyone was able to express themselves and learn from each other over these challenging topics and through these beautiful books.
While I was in Kyrgyzstan I also traveled on short breaks to Budapest, Paris, Vienna, Prague, Turkey and Kazakhstan. I made a friend in Kyrgyzstan and when she moved to Thailand she invited me to visit her. When she unexpectedly left for a work trip I traveled to the Angkor temples in Cambodia, another dream of mine. I stayed on a mat in a large dormitory room for $2.50 a night and saw the beautiful temples, ate incredible food, and made friends in my hostel who I still know, years later.
In the Peace Corps I experienced a lot of personal challenges, and learned from local friends about cultural and social norms that I found difficult, such as corruption and gender inequality. I also learned to be creative and self-motivated to pursue projects and learning without being required to or much external support. I learned to believe in my ability to define goals and make things happen.
After Peace Corps I moved to Illinois, the hometown of my boyfriend at the time. I thought I would be happy working in domestic, rural health, rather than the international health I had pursued, because I was jaded by the corruption and disparity between the international organizations and the local people in Kyrgyzstan. I couldn’t find a job in my field, however, so I worked at a Yemeni restaurant as a waitress and then as a sitter in a hospital. I sat with people who were severely mentally disabled or with people who were at suicide risk.
Then I got a job as a Rape Crisis Prevention Educator and after that as a Domestic Violence Legal Advocate and Rape Crisis Responder. In that job I really felt like I made a difference – I saw all the challenges people faced against the system they live in. I would even say it was as different of a cultural experience as the Peace Corps was – rural Illinois was so much different from the America I knew. In my job I would spend a lot of time helping people who experienced domestic violence, guide and help them in court, help connect them with other resources, and generally provide support.
During the time I could not find a job in my field, however, I was applying elsewhere and I get an email from a previous mentor at the CDC, from when I did my Master’s practices there. She told me about a global health fellowship program at CDC, and by this time I was already missing the rest of the world outside of Southern Illinois. I put my fate in the application and ended up with a few options, and moved to Atlanta to participate in the year-long fellowship. After a first year in the HIV Prevention Medical Transmission team, working on a number of programs including travel to Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia, and vacations to Thailand, China, and Poland, I decided to continue for the second year on the Leadership team.
Though I do not want to do the management and operations work that I spend most of my time in these days, I am glad to be at the CDC and definitely want to continue in public health. I want to manage maternal & child health projects on the global scale, and all the experiences and skills gained through my fellowship will help me in that pursuit. I am always thinking about my next step, and job searching, and, of course, doing my best to learn more.
I also got a wonderful scholarship for Peace Corps alumni for an International Policy Management Master degree, so when I am not in school or with friends, I am studying more formally as well. I am traveling a bit in Europe this year for courses, funded by the fellowship, I have spent time in Berlin and Amsterdam, and plan to go to Geneva next, all to learn about different aspects of global health and development. I always look forward to my next trip.
3 key realizations
The most special experience in life is getting to know another person. Deeply connecting with other person.
Be open to any experience in life. Whatever comes to you – you can learn from it.
To me, the unstructured environment is the best way to grow personally. No milestones, no timeline. I just need enough space. The best experiences I had in life were when things were open-ended. There is the space to truly realize what I can do when there is no structure.
Who helped you most along the way?
My father, he has always told me I could do everything that I truly wanted. It really supported me, I’ve always believed him. My mom as well. Probably none of the things I’ve done they approved of, but they’ve always supported me. I talk to them every day, they always listen to all my stories.
What does it mean to be lost and found to you?
To be lost is when you don’t know yourself. To be found is to be comfortable with who you are.
Do you think you’ll be doing what you do now for the whole life?
I will always be doing global health work, I think. Connecting with people around the world. But what exactly I’ll be doing – I will do what it takes to make an impact, help people and feel fulfilled. I want to feel like my life is dynamic and be enthusiastic about whatever I am working on.
What’s your purpose?
To help other people feel supported and cared for, especially through building relationships between myself and them. And to read a lot of books and see a lot of places and wear long dresses and breath the air of all the forests.
Get it touch
Feel free to reach out to Larisa on Facebook.