Abby Solom is a bright graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who spent six months serving at the “assisting in public health education” Volunteer Abroad in Accra, Ghana.
She is one of the most talented, energetic and committed UBELONG Volunteers. Abby made a lasting difference through education and research initiatives that helped raised the public health status in the community.
Along the way, she got deeply immersed in the culture, bonded with locals and mentored many of her UBELONG peers in Ghana. Here is her interview!
What motivated you to volunteer in Ghana?
I applied to volunteer with UBELONG because I had the incredible fortune to receive an education at a world-class university. That is a privilege that few people get, and I knew that I had to use my gift for the global good. I aim to do this throughout my entire career, and serving abroad just after graduation seemed like a great way to start my life of service. Additionally, I was motivated to go not just for a few weeks but for six months because I didn’t want to be a tourist or a visitor. I had gone abroad to other countries before for a few weeks at a time, but this time I wanted to really feel like I lived there, make real connections with local people, learn the culture, the local language, and just soak everything up.
I applied specifically to the public health program in Ghana because of my educational background and experience in infectious disease. I thought my skills would be of best use in a public health position. I chose Ghana specifically because I got to travel to another African country during school for a few weeks, but didn’t feel like I really got to experience it like a local. I wanted to go back and really live there.
What impact did you make in Ghana?
Impact is hard to assess. As bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college graduates we all think we can change the world, and when that doesn’t happen it’s hard not to feel down. However, I did make some real progress on several projects in Ghana. Myself and some other volunteers performed a community health research project in partnership with the local clinic to learn more about how mothers in the area get their health information. The results of this research will help future volunteers better target their efforts, and also help the local clinic better target their services.
Additionally, we educated hundreds, maybe a few thousand local youth on infectious disease prevention, and started a project to help local teachers get the resources and training to teach these topics as well. I also reached out to different organizations in the area to build strong partnerships to make their efforts more effective.
I also made many connections with Ghanaians and got a chance to have cultural and dialogue exchanges. A world in which we understand each other better can only be a better place, and I think traveling abroad, especially for long periods of time, facilitates building these connections towards a more unified and peaceful world.
Who is the most important person you met in Ghana?
Two people come to mind. The first is definitely my host mom. Auntie Josephine was the highlight of my time in Ghana! She made me feel so welcome, and she allowed me to be truly immersed in Ghanaian culture. Auntie Josephine ran a school, so I also got to know some of her students and teachers. She also introduced me to all of her neighbors, some of whom became my close friends. Auntie’s whole family, including members who did not live with us, were excited to have me there, and they would call me regularly just to see how I was doing.
The other most important person I met was one of the nurses at the clinic where I was doing some of my work. Sister Dinah was equally welcoming, and when I was working under her, she would not just tell me what to do but would help me learn more about Ghana and its health care system. I also got to know Dinah and her family outside of the clinic, and they are the kindest people. Dinah’s story also inspired me. She overcame incredible poverty and hardship to become a nurse and has dedicated her life to public service as a public health nurse. She reminded me that while Ghana has many problems, it also has many incredible people, Ghanaian people, who are making it better every day.
What did you learn about yourself in Ghana?
I learned to be fearless in Ghana. Traveling around my area and around the country, communicating with people with whom I didn’t share a common language, trying new things; after all of that, nothing back home feels scary anymore.
I also learned to utilize my creativity. When the power is out, or when you have extremely limited resources, you still have to get your work done, and that creativity is something that will serve me well back home.
Finally, I learned the value of slowing down. In the U.S., it is so easy to get caught up in trying to accomplish a hundred things in the day. In Ghana, I realized that it is ok to relax in the evenings. It is ok to stop and talk to a friend on the walk home, even if it means getting less done. Spending time with people and having time for myself is an important part of my human experience, and I brought this new appreciation back with me from Ghana.
What advice would you give to future volunteers in Ghana?
My number one piece of advice to anyone who wants to volunteer abroad is to go for as long as you’re able. I have volunteered and travelled abroad for a few weeks at a time before, and the experience is not even comparable to living there for six months. Your ability to make effective change depends on your understanding of the culture and systems in which you work, and it takes months, if not years, to develop this understanding. Even living in Ghana for six months, I felt incredibly limited by my time to start projects and by my understanding of the issues in the area.
Second, I would highly recommend staying with a host family. This was one of the highlights of my time in Ghana. Staying with a host family allows you to really experience the local culture, meet people, and be a part of the community. I made connections with my family and neighbors that I definitely would not have been able to otherwise.
Third, be willing to put yourself out there. Ask questions. Talk to people. Be adventurous. You will be embarrassed many times, but that’s part of the experience.