STEP Story: Julia Liu

Undergraduate Biology Student, University of California, Berkeley
Migori & Suba, May-August 2016

Julia liuUnlike most STEP participants, I came into FACES without any medical background. I was an undergraduate biology student with an interest in learning more about how to effectively and sustainably work in global health. When I first arrived in Kenya, my primary assignment was to help build a curriculum for FACES’ new hybrid project, which would build off the successes of the SEARCH study and combine community health campaigns (CHCs) with home-based tracking to increase uptake of HIV testing and care in Homa Bay County.

I arrived in Kenya a month before the hybrid project was to begin, and so I spent my first few weeks shadowing the SEARCH team in Migori and Suba. SEARCH is one of the only efforts worldwide that has successfully reached the UNAIDS 90-90-90 goal, and I was excited to have the chance to see how it was done. I had the opportunity to tag along during CHCs, tracking activities, trainings, and various meetings, and I was humbled by how open the staff was, not only in sharing their expertise and experiences, but also in making me feel as though I was a part of their family—even long after I had shifted to work full time with the hybrid project.

Once the hybrid project began in Mbita, I used what I had learned from SEARCH to help coordinate hybrid’s CHCs, train staff, and draft standard operating procedures that would guide daily activities within the health campaigns. From dawn until late in the evening, hundreds of people would come to our campaigns to receive a variety of services, including testing for HIV, hypertension, and malaria; family planning services and cervical cancer screenings; clinician consults and medications, and various others. We faced a mile-long list of logistical challenges from the start, and I was astounded again and again by the dedication, patience, and flexibility of our team as we all worked together to navigate the numerous issues that came with building and implementing such an ambitious project.

Ultimately, my time with FACES taught me so much about community and global health, project coordination, and sustainable international work. I discovered what I was capable of, learned about HIV care and Kenya’s health system, and immersed myself in the Kenyan culture, food, and language. But like with any experience, some of the most satisfying and memorable moments were those shared with the people around me. I will never forget the visceral beauty of jostling down a dirt road in a bus full of our sleepily excited team singing hymns, the red sun slowly rising outside over the lake; nor the visceral excitement and fear that hovered around the entire staff on the morning we were to venture out on the water and take boats to Ngodhe Island for a CHC; nor the deep, exhausted satisfaction of eating Kenya’s sweet sweet bananas and mandazi with my coworkers, the sun setting behind us after a long day.  The passionate, driven, fiercely positive people I met inspired me every day with their commitment and excitement for this project, and I am immensely grateful not only for this experience as a whole, but also for the friendships I made and the people I met who made Kenya feel as warm and familiar as home.