In early 2016, Kelsey Sklar ’17 did something she’d never done before: she took her research skills on the road.
Sklar spent the spring semester in Argentina through the School for International Training’s Public Health in Urban Environments program. With a focus on experiential learning, this program offers public health coursework, educational excursions around the host country and an independent research project.
“Having participated in research since high school, I was thrilled to be able to use my qualitative research skills abroad,” she said.
Sklar’s experience was completely immersive; she lived in a homestay with a host mom who did not speak any English and all of her classes and research were conducted in Spanish.
“By the end of the semester I had written a 40-page research report completely in Spanish and spoke with fluency,” she said.
Having been at Cornell for a few years, Sklar felt the need to step outside of the campus bubble. In her search for opportunities to do that, she found the Public Health in Urban Environments program and was attracted to its research focus. The program connects students with local professionals in their field of interest, who supervise their independent study project.
“As a pre-med student in the College of Human Ecology, I chose this program because it was an amazing way to learn more about social determinants of health and health systems and to shadow doctors,” she says.
Sklar’s independent study allowed her to participate in and contribute to ongoing research on women’s health issues. Sklar interviewed health professionals in Buenos Aires to gather their opinions about the use of Misoprostol, a drug used to induce abortion in a relatively safe, effective and quick way. Local access to the drug in Argentina is limited by law, cost, availability and the social stigma around abortion. Abortion is currently illegal in the country unless the life or health of the mother is at risk or the pregnancy is the result of sexual violence.
“The health professionals I interviewed spoke highly of the use of this drug to induce an abortion,” Sklar said. “A woman can consume the drug in a pill form in the comfort of her home.” According to Sklar, interviewees identified several next steps to research in terms of the drug’s use including the need to develop a protocol for pain management associated with the medication, to regulate the cost of the drug and to expand its legality in Argentina.
“No country is perfect,” she says. “It was important for me not only to learn about the United States from the perspective of Argentina, but also to live in Argentina and see first-hand the successes and challenges of that country.”
In her free time, Sklar described her activities as “sipping on yerba maté, eating facturas and taking yoga classes – taught in Spanish!” Yerba maté is a bitter, loose-leaf tea drunk out of a gourd with a metal straw; it is often accompanied by facturas, or pastries. “Friendship in Argentina is a serious concept, and the bonds between people are strong because they spend hours talking together over maté,” Sklar said.
The value of spending time with friends, Sklar said, is one of her main takeaways from her time abroad. Upon returning to Cornell, Sklar said she made more of an effort to enjoy that type of camaraderie on campus. “Even though my friends in Ithaca could not handle the bitter taste of maté, I still feel like I’m hanging out with them significantly more,” she said.
Sklar acknowledged that although she was apprehensive about going to Argentina, in hindsight she realized that her experience there was incredible. “Learning to speak another language has opened up a world of opportunity for me,” she said.
Sklar now plans to spend time after Cornell working in health disparities research with immigrant populations. “I am hoping that my knowledge of Spanish and my broader understanding of the intricacies of Latin culture will be useful in my future career,” she said.