Having a new experience abroad can go so far as to change your life path, which is what happened to Senior Meghan Howard when she spent summer 2011 in San Vito, Costa Rica. Howard stayed near the country’s border with Panama for 11 weeks to conduct research on the health care-seeking behaviors of migrant Ngöbe coffee workers who also are mothers.
Howard said she originally intended to continue on to medical school after her undergraduate studies, but that her research this past summer solidified her now future plan to obtain a Ph.D. in anthropology.
“I decided I want to end up going into research because I love it so much,” she said.
While Howard worked with migrant Costa Rican workers in the summer, she returned to the country in October 2011 to conduct research on migrant Panamanian Ngöbe mothers to compare their infant mortality rates to those of the Costa Rican Ngöbe mothers. She examined why the rate is higher for the Panamanian workers. Howard carried out this research in conjunction with Duke University’s Organization for Tropical Studies.
Although her research is not yet finalized, Howard noted there are structural differences in the two groups’ care that could contribute to the varying mortality rates. These differences include that Costa Rica’s health system covers indigenous individuals while Panama’s health system does not, and the Panamanian workers are more inclined to use traditional healers.
Howard said she encountered several challenges when conducting her research, such as the difficulty of finding women to whom she could speak after they spent long hours working on the farm all day. She also said the Costa Rican workers faced significant sanitation concerns, including limited access to clean water.
Despite the challenges she encountered in carrying out her data collection, Howard said once her research is complete, it could ultimately help improve the migrant workers’ access to health care.
“Being able to come up with a product, I can give back to that community,” she said.
Howard first visited Costa Rica to start conducting her research in January 2011. She said spending time there initially and just learning about the culture was important for her to understand the community she was working in and have its members understand her as well.
“I would say at least the first month was building trust,” Howard said.
Howard also plans to apply for a Fulbright Grant to continue further research in the area. She believes spending time abroad and learning about another culture, as she did, can be valuable for all students.
“I wish everyone could have this experience,” she said.
“It was absolutely life-changing.”
Meghan Howard is a senior anthropology major from Roanoke Rapids, N.C. She received funding to conduct her research in Costa Rica through CGI’s Carolina Undergraduate Health Fellowship. To learn more about this and other funding opportunities, please visit the Awards + Fellowships section of our website.