Meet Dr. Alexandra Lightfoot (Kenya ’87), current research assistant professor of global public health at UNC Chapel Hill and partner of the WorldTeach Nepal Girls Education Research program. Dr. Lightfoot was one of the first WorldTeach volunteers in our 31 year history – and her son Aidan (Thailand ’16) followed in her footsteps!
Reflection on Nepal Experience for WorldTeach
By Alexandra Lightfoot
A dirt road winds between swollen rice paddies on its way to a school set in the middle of the fields. Down the road scamper small throngs of children of different ages, some quite young and others nearing adolescence. They wear neat, ironed blue uniform shirts with pants for the boys and skirts and black tights for the girls. Bright red ribbons adorn the girls’ long braids. Some carry umbrellas to block the sun as they navigate the puddles where the rice fields have flooded into the road. This is the sight that greets our team as we visit a rural school as part of the Nepal Girls Education Research Program. Designed by Ganga Gautam, WorldTeach Nepal Program leader, English Professor at Tribhuvan University, and Echidna Scholar with the Brookings Institution, the program is focused on addressing barriers to girls’ education in Nepal. Working closely with his wife, Madhavi Ghimire, a Health Educator, Ganga is passionate about finding ways to address barriers and ensure that more girls attain a full and quality education.
Ganga introduces our small team, including Madhavi, Supriya Sadagopan, a master’s in public health student from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is completing her practicum with the program, and me, an education-trained public health researcher also from Gillings, to the Head Teacher. He greets us and gives us a ceremonial scarf of welcome. When the school bell rings, students and teachers line up to sing the National Anthem and commence the school day. The sounds of children gathering and the first notes of the anthem bring me back to my time at a rural Harambee (community self-help) school in Kenya as one of the first WorldTeach volunteers. I left there 30 years ago but the experience of living and working in a rural community made its mark and has shaped my trajectory ever since. The impact of the experience even spans the next generation in my son, Aidan, who served with WorldTeach Thailand several years ago and is now working in international education. It was in Kenya that I first gained insight into how education and health are intertwined and the ways in which opportunity is constrained because of structural barriers. The reality for the rural girls, daughters of farmers, I taught at Eshikulu Secondary School was that their education was not going to lead to jobs in the formal sector or to university, but research shows that educating girls has a positive effect on the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. I went to graduate school in education after my time in Kenya to focus on increasing access and improving attainment of schooling for girls in low resource communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Though my lens shifted in graduate school to domestic settings, I remain focused on examining the intersection of inequities in health and education and their impacts on adolescents, families and communities. As a public health professor, I use participatory research approaches to engage youth and their adult supporters in identifying barriers to equity and generating solutions to address them.
WorldTeach brought me together with Ganga and our collaboration has brought my work full circle. Girls in rural Nepal face daunting barriers to education which intersect with public health challenges, such as Chhaupadi, the custom of isolating girls during menstruation. Ganga has been building a program over several years aimed at enhancing girls’ education and empowerment in Nepal by demystifying menstruation and boosting skills, knowledge, and school retention among rural adolescent girls. He is looking to strengthen the program using participatory approaches to research, my area of expertise, with girls and their families to gain better understanding of the barriers to girls’ education through their eyes and identify strategies with them to increase school retention. Our goal through WorldTeach is to create opportunities to involve undergraduate and graduate students in the ongoing development and evaluation of the Nepal Girls Education Research program, as Supriya did in the summer of 2018. She worked with Ganga and Madhavi conducting interviews and focus groups with girls, parents and teachers and the findings were incorporated into the next iteration of the program. We want to expand opportunities for involvement in the program. Our hope is to build and sustain a viable and mutually beneficial collaboration to improve the well-being, educational opportunities and life trajectories of girls in rural Nepal.
A picture of Alex from her WorldTeach service.