Bridgette Fortier ‘13

Studying Abroad in Kenya:

By Rebecca Balk ‘15

Photo: Bridgette Fortier (center) in Kenya

There are so many wonderful opportunities for UMass Amherst students, and it is always great to hear about a student taking full advantage of them. This is the case for Bridgette Fortier, a senior Public Health major. During the spring semester of her junior year, Bridgette studied abroad in Kenya and Tanzania through the SIT (School for International Training) Health and Community Development Program.

Bridgette has always had an interest in maternal and children’s health. Her interest was sparked at an early age when a midwife spoke to her middle school classroom. So when Bridgette found a program in Kenya that would let her not only study public health, but also let her conduct an independent study project, she knew it was the right program for her.

Her journey to Kenya wasn’t always easy, but her friends and the staff at UMass Amherst supported her greatly. One of the biggest impediments to studying abroad is the financial hurdle, but Bridgette received financial aid from a number of sources, including the university and from SIT, as well as from several scholarships, including the Corinne A. Johnson Memorial Scholarship, which the School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS) awards annually to exceptional Public Health students.

Before she knew it, Bridgette was on a plane and off to start the greatest adventure of her life. The experience, however, didn’t get any easier once she landed in Kenya. Bridgette described her drive from the airport to the city of Nairobi: “Nothing looked familiar. I felt so lost and confused. I felt like a newborn. I didn’t know how to do anything.”

During her time in Kenya, Bridgette lived with a host family in Nairobi (the capital city of Kenya) and two weeks with a host family in a rural village. She took classes while in Nairobi with the other students in the program (including learning Swahili), and experienced first-hand the abject poverty of families living in the slums of Nairobi. The culture shock was tremendous.

During the last four weeks of her stay, she conducted her independent study, working with Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK), an organization that helps women and children with AIDS. The project is what had the most impact on Bridgette during her time abroad. She interviewed women and children with HIV/AIDS and wrote narratives about them, as well as a final paper with her conclusions about the project.

Photo: Bridgette Fortier with children in Kenya

Bridgette talked about how difficult this project was initially. Despite all the work she was doing, she didn’t feel like she was making a difference. But she realized by the end of the project, “Maybe I am not curing AIDS, but I am giving someone a voice. Just listening makes a difference.”

Throughout her experience she learned a lot about the world, public health and herself. She learned that, “No one has all the answers. I saw a lot of organizations trying to fix Kenya, but because no one was working together there wasn’t a lot of progress. The different organizations almost seemed to be competing with one another, when they need to work together and communicate.”

She also saw the depth and complexity of HIV/AIDS, and she realized that no one person was going to fix the issue no matter how hard they tried. She said this made her realize how broad public health is, and how complicated it is. Her experience showed her the less glamorous side of public health, the side you don’t always get to see in the classroom. She said even though there were times she wanted to give up, in the end it reaffirmed her interests in public health and maternal and children’s health. It fueled her passion, especially her interest in going to nursing school.

“I learned from interviewing women, that I need to be hands on, and I want to see the results. I want to see what I am doing is making a difference.”

Her thoughts on studying abroad are much less complex: “Just do it!”

She adds that, “Even though it is intimidating to be gone for so long, and it’s hard being so homesick, in the end it will be entirely worth it. I learned to love Kenya, and now I think about it every day and I learn from it every day. I learned about myself and about the world. Now it’s over, and that is hard to realize.”

Public Health is a great field because it allows students to explore their interests and pick a focus that is specific to them. During her time in Kenya, Bridgette was practicing public health, and she felt that every thing she learned in the classroom her at UMass Amherst was applicable to her experiences in Kenya.

Bridgette Fortier has plans to travel after graduation, and continue to work in maternal and children’s health. She is considering going abroad again to East Africa to work with Village Health Works, as well as attending nursing school within a couple of years of graduation. After a semester in Kenya, it seems that the world is hers to explore.

Read Bridgette’s blog at: