Lessons Learned from a Parasite

9 May

My first year in college taught me a lot of valuable lessons: how to manage my time effectively, how to live in a 16×16 foot room with someone else, and how to do laundry without shrinking my favorite sweatshirt. But most of all it tested my resilience.


After years of attending an all girls’ school, I came into my first year of college confident, empowered and ready to take on the challenges that would come my way. However, I wasn’t prepared for having to rebuild myself in the wake of a “tornado” that led me to question myself, my abilities, and my role as a friend, daughter, and sister.


This tornado was caused by an undiagnosed parasite that I had picked up while traveling in Guatemala last spring. As I started my freshman year,  my mental and physical health began to spiral downward and ultimately left me by Spring Break at a dangerously low weight of 84 pounds.  In the uncertainty of my diagnosis, I spent the first year of college blaming myself and my environment for my condition. Since high school, I had this picture painted in my head of the college experience being a perfect balance of school work, friends, and discovering my passion, but instead I was struggling to barely keep my head above water. I lost that confidence in myself that I had worked so hard to gain and I did not know where I would find the strength to push through.


Because of my unhealthy appearance, people around me began to keep their distance as if they were scared they would break me if we made contact. I got used to the whispers in the bathroom or in the hall when I walked by and little by little, I began to speak and smile less. I slowly withdrew from the world and felt alone in a sea of people. Understandably, those around me did not know how to react or approach me but many decided the best approach would be to avoid me all together. Honestly, before this experience, I probably would have done the same. It was a few friends, family members, and mentors that stuck with me who enabled me to ultimately overcome.

After months without answers, I finally received the diagnosis. It was a tiny parasite lodged in my intestines that was causing all this, and I was excited to have something to blame. A round of medicine and a week later, I began to make progress. While I am happy to say that I am back to my “healthy self,” I would hesitate to say that I am my “old self.” This parasite provided me with the opportunity to reevaluate what’s truly important to me; to take the pieces and qualities that make me who I am and rebuild a stronger, more independent and self-aware version of my self. Once I reframed my road to recovery as one that should move me forward instead of backward, I was able to turn this obstacle into opportunity.

I believe there is something to be gained and learned from every experience regardless of the nature of the experience. These are just a few of my takeaways from my time with this little creature that I hope will help you when you find yourself in a time of challenge.

1)The power of empathy: I like to think that I have always been a sympathetic person – someone who feels pain in the wake of others’ pain and joy in the wake of others’ happiness. It wasn’t until I was the one who needed the sympathy of others in order to overcome this obstacle, that I learned what it means to be empathetic – to truly know what It feels like to be in someone else’s shoes. The quote “be kind; everyone you meet is fighting their own battle,” seems to sum up my feelings perfectly.

2) Giving purpose: As I began to look sick, I noticed that my professors, peers, and friends began treating me differently – constantly asking if I was okay or offering to take over my responsibilities. I had to fight to stay in the game and not miss out on the opportunities that college presents. I hated feeling like others were losing trust in my abilities to fulfill my commitments. While I know those around me were just trying to help out of concern for my well-being, I came to realize that making a sick person feel sick takes away what gives them purpose and joy.

3) Just ask: When we are most vulnerable is often is often when we are most resistant to ask for help. We fear that by asking others to lift us up, we are simultaneously holding them down. I have always struggled to ask for help, not from fear of showing my weaknesses to others but showing my weaknesses to myself. When I finally started being honest with myself and others about needing help and support to help me keep going, I not only began to feel better, I developed meaningful, reciprocal relationships with those around me. For the first time, strengthening relationships – old and new – became the most important thing in my life above schoolwork and projects.

4) Know yourself: Even though I knew deep down that something was not right, I slowly began to doubt that it was anything other than the stress and anxiety of transition to a completely new environment. I had to fight against the outside assumptions in order to stay true to myself.  At the end of the day, with the support of my family and by (quite literally) sticking to my gut, I learned how important it is to listen to your body and advocate for yourself. Don’t let others’ perception of you become how you define yourself. After all, you are the one who knows yourself better than anyone else.

Although I am incredibly happy to be healthy and have this first year of college under my belt, I am actually grateful to this little creature for the lessons it has enabled me to learn. Without this challenge – this test of strength – I would not have been able to grow as much as I did and revaluate who I am and who I want to be in this world.

And that, my friends, is greater than any lesson you can ever learn in a lecture hall.


Creating the Leaders of Tomorrow, Today

17 Apr

See page 20-21 for my article about the intersection of sports and leadership in RIVAL magazine, a joint publication between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University that seeks to reinforce and redefine the historic rivalry.






WISER: The Girl Effect in Action

17 Apr

This post originally appeared on the HuffPost Impact Blog.


“I was not born to be unseen”

Meet Mercy. She is a spunky, determined 17-year-old with a twinkle in her eye. Mercy has many passions, goals and hopes for her future, just like most girls her age. She is an aspiring engineer, change maker in her community of Muhuru Bay, Kenya and most importantly, a future high school graduate at the WISER secondary school in rural Kenya, During her visit to Duke University in early April, she shared her ultimate dream with a classroom full of students; “I want to use my education to make a change in my community, to bring them up.”

However, graduation and a bright professional future were not always within the realm of possibility for Mercy and other girls in Muhuru Bay. In fact, despite the proven economic and societal benefits of educating a girl, completing high school is not the typical experience of many adolescent women in developing countries around the world. WISER is changing that.

WISER (the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research) is a community development organization focused on the social empowerment of underprivileged girls through education and health. Founded by Dr. Sherryl Broverman, Professor of Biology and Global Health at Duke University, and Andrew Cunningham Duke ’08, WISER works holistically to improve health, education and economic outcomes for girls, particularly those orphaned by AIDS. Through WISER’s education and health programs Mercy and her fellow students now harness the power of their voices and fulfill their dreams.

Girls looking to further their education in communities like Muhuru Bay face many obstacles that extend far beyond accessibility to school. They are confronted with challenges such as lack of access to clean drinking water, sexual and physical abuse, and HIV/AIDS. Combine this with a sociocultural environment that does not value the role of girls in society or believe they are worth educating, and you have a serious obstacle to overcome in providing education to young women. WISER is unique because it takes a comprehensive approach to girls’ education. The organization recognizes the interconnectivity of the environmental elements necessary for the successful delivery of education in developing countries and has a proven model. WISER provides its students with everything they need to attend school, from underwear and sanitary pads, to nutritional meals, health care, psychosocial support through counseling and school supplies. Most importantly it provides girls a safe and supportive community that lives and grows together. Furthermore, WISER has provided the first clean drinking water in the area, serving over 5,000 community members, including the Ministry of Health clinic, and is currently expanding its capacity to reach 20,000 members.

To date, the organization has increased the number of girls completing primary school in Muhuru Bay by 120 percent and improved their academic outcomes. The WISER secondary school has a zero percent attrition rate due to pregnancy and child marriage, as opposed to 30 percent attrition in neighboring schools On March 7, 2014, a celebration was held for the first graduating class. All 28 graduates passed the national exam and over half will attend universities with scholarships. To put this in perspective, in the last 30 years, only one girl has continued on to university from Muhuru Bay. The graduation ceremony attracted over 1,000 community members, including Kenyan dignitaries, to celebrate the graduates and WISER’s success in empowering underprivileged girls. In short, WISER works.


WISER’s achievements cannot solely be measured by numbers. During Mercy’s visit to Duke this month, she attended engineering classes and spoke eloquently to a room of 200 students. It is clear that WISER has given Mercy the tools to empower herself, and use her voice to bring awareness to the obstacles she has overcome, but many girls still face in rural Kenya.

WISER is changing the way Muhuru Bay and its surrounding communities view girls. By keeping girls in school and reducing young pregnancies, WISER is enabling girls to transform themselves into academic powerhouses that outcompete boys from well-established schools. Girls that were not considered worth educating are now the top students in the country in math and science. “This is what education is all about — not just the inputs, but also the dynamic, committed and intelligent processes of teaching and learning that is occurring within WISER’s walls,” says Andy Cunningham.

Mercy is the Girl Effect in action. Her peers are the Girl Effect in action. WISER is the Girl Effect in action.

To learn more and support WISER so that girls like Mercy have the opportunity to receive an education, stay healthy and safe, and become their generation’s leaders, visit http://www.wisergirls.org. 

ActBold Hero Series: Dr. Mary Mwanyika-Sando

11 Mar


In honor of  Women’s History Month, I am blogging about women around the world who are helping transform the lives of those in their communities. My first spotlight is on Dr. Mary Mwanyika-Sando who  spearheaded improvements in maternal and child health programs in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  As the Medical Monitor for the HIV/AIDS Collaborative project by Muhimbili University, Dar es Salaam City Council and Harvard School of Public Health (MDH), she provides technical support to about 120 program physicians in 22 sites, coordinating all clinical activities as well as identifying gaps in and facilitating in various trainings. Through her work, Dr. Mwanyika-Sando has helped provide dozens of clinics with  anti-retroviral treatment, which has greatly helped reduce the rate of mother-to-child HIV transmission in the community.

According to Dr. Mwanyika-Sando involving the women patients themselves in their own care and treatment is essential.

“I have learned that when a woman is educated about her and her family’s health, there is a ripple effect; first to her neighbours, then to her community, until the entire country is healthier and stronger.”

I am Courage. We are Courage.

9 Mar


Over the course of our lives we have all find ourselves face to face with adversity. It is in that place when we are most vulnerable, yet often most resistant to ask for help. We fear that by asking others to lift us up, we are simultaneously holding them down.

I struggled to find my place in college. I felt alone in a sea of people and wondered how I was ever going to find my home away from home. I lost that confidence in myself and in others and I didn’t know where I would find the courage to seize spontaneity and embrace the uncertainty of my future. Although I have learned that we are the only ones that can empower ourselves- no one has the ability or right to empower us- we have a network of women around the world who can support us. We are not alone.

In honor of International Women’s month, I look to the women who have gotten us here and those who have continued on the fight for courage. The women in our past who put women on the agenda: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Blackwell and Eleanor Roosevelt. The feminists of our time: Gloria Steinem, Shelby Knox, Mona Elthaway. And I look at the future generation of leaders are advocating for themselves and their sisters around the world for my inspiration.  Malala Youssef has fought tirelessly for right to an education. Mary, who I met in Fiji four years ago, teachers the young girls in her village how to read since they are not allowed to go to school. Somayya Jabarti, the first female newspaper editor in Saudia Arabia, a country that is notoriously holds women back. I look to the young women I met in Guatemala who have overcome the unimaginable violence perpetrated against them, and I look to 11-year-old Zuriel Oduwole from Nigeria, who has made a name for herself by interviewing major public figures and for directing her very own documentary. I look to Suma Tharu, a Nepalese activist and songwriter who overcame indentured servitude during which she was abused and forced into hard labor for six years. I look to the brave women who I may never get the chance to meet but who fight the barriers of gender discrimination everyday so that women everywhere have the opportunity to be counted, go to school, and stay safe from violence.

We have all faced and will face different types of adversity during our lifetime, but we can learn from each other-from those who came before us and those who fight alongside us. They inspire me every day to live a life of purpose and they can give us the strength to persevere. I hope whenever we find ourselves struggling to keep going, wanting to give up, feeling lost, we allow ourselves to first validate those feelings of hardship and then empower ourselves to say “I am courage.” Together we can find the courage to continue to fight for a more just world for women everywhere.

We owe it to the women who preceded us, the women alongside us, and we owe it to ourselves.


Start Skimm’ing today!

19 Feb

Like most college students and young professionals these days, I found myself letting the day go by without spending the time necessary to read the newspaper….even digitally!

When eating dinner with my friends at the dining hall one night, one friend expressed her anxiety about feeling as if she were in a “college bubble” all the time. “I want to know what’s going on, but the last thing I want to do after reading my Orgo textbook is read through long, tedious, depressing articles,” she exclaimed!

This phenomena of being in a “bubble”  is not uncommon among college students, and one of the best ways to go about popping that bubble is to be engaged with the world outside your immediate environment. What was missing seemed to be a Spark Notes version of current events; a source that would send you a summarized, condensed version of the major important events or headlines that one could read first thing in the morning and in between classes.

Enter theSkimm. theSkimm is the daily e-mail newsletter that gives you everything you need to start your day. Started by two female young professionals, it provides anyone (especially college students and young professionals) with fresh editorial content about the current headlines and events. I immediately subscribed to the daily newsletter and now happily “skimm” every morning before getting out of bed. I love it!



As a Skimm’bassador at Duke, I am helping to spread the word. It is an informative and quirky way to stay well-informed about the world outside the college bubble.

Anyone-women, men, students, adults, teens- will find this a useful source. Have I convinced You? Subscribe HERE!


Thoughtful Thursday

19 Dec

In continuing to reflect on the loss of one of the world’s greatest difference makers, I was inspired by The United Nations Foundation’s collection of their favorite Nelson Mandela quotes. Madiba is the epitome of what it means to “act bold” in the service of society with character, compassion, and conviction.



1.      “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

2.      “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

3.      “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

4.      “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

5.      “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

6.      “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”

7.      “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”


8.      “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

9.  “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

10.  “You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.”