One of the most challenging experiences I have encountered in my life thus far is to be separated from my comfort zone. Although being displaced from one's normal environment and culture can be stressful, there are ways to handle the situation that result in positive and productive gains in personal development. This kind of separation first occurred with me in Southeast Asia, while I was studying HIV/AIDS at the National University of Singapore, but now I am experiencing the same challenges and excitement here in Cape Town, South Africa.
I strongly recommend an international research experience to anyone, especially minority students, because it broadens one's perspective and more importantly increases opportunities; however, I would keep a few suggestions in mind. I recommend keeping in close contact with family and friends at home through either e-mail or phone calls. Photographs are a must to feel more at home. This will make adjusting to the foreign environment much easier. A daily or weekly journal is also helpful because it will allow you to reflect on events as they occur. Coming from a background in which food is important, I went to a Mexican restaurant once a week while I was in Singapore and ate to my heart's content.
After returning from Singapore, I wanted to continue working with HIV, so I applied to several national and international summer research programs through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including the Minority International Research Training ( MIRT) program. Because I had always been interested in traditional African culture, I decided to apply to two MIRT programs (one in mathematical modeling and one in public health) in the continent hardest hit by HIV--Africa. I was interested in looking at social science aspects of HIV/AIDS, and I would explore the realm of analysis and manipulation of qualitative and quantitative data. I accepted a 3-month internship through the Pennsylvania State University MIRT program and traveled to Cape Town to conduct research at the Human Sciences Research Council ( HSRC).
Presently, I am working for the Social Aspects of HIV and AIDS division of HSRC under the supervision of outstanding mentors from Africa and the rest of the world. The research is being funded by the Ford Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and other organizations interested in HIVAIDS research. My primary objective is to analyze the stigma attached to HIV infection and investigate the varying forms of discrimination toward people with HIV or AIDS. To better understand this stigma, I am analyzing data taken from interviews with a variety of groups such as youth, older people, traditional healers, religious leaders, and homosexuals.
As a result of my work with HSRC, I have developed contacts with people and organizations I can network with later on in my career. In addition, the research I performed at the National University of Singapore has been submitted to the Journal of Young Investigators , an undergraduate peer-reviewed journal, in hopes that it will be published by the end of the year. This submission will also increase my contact base by keeping my name in AIDS research circles.
In conclusion, although I had to leave the comfort of my family and friends to do research abroad, the experience has been well worth it. One does not lose one's culture by going abroad; as a matter of fact, traveling may increase one's sense of culture and sense of self. I urge all students of color to adopt a "maverick" attitude when it comes to their careers and blaze a trail for those following behind. The minority community is in dire need of leaders who are willing to take the chance to present a positive representation of people of color. The investment will benefit us all.