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Poverty Studies Unveils Concern for the Health of Marginalized Peoples

By Katherine H. LeMasters

Ms. LeMasters is researching the pregnancy experiences of Roma women in Romania through the Edwin A. Morris ’26 Distinguished Research Grant (academic year of 2015-2016 ).  She graduated from Washington and Lee in 2015 with degrees in Economics and Global Politics and a minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies.

From my Poverty 101 class fall term of my freshmen year at Washington and Lee to my current post-graduate work in Romania, the Shepherd program has fundamentally shaped my life trajectory. When I enrolled in Washington and Lee, I did not know what field of work I wanted to go into, and since then, the Shepherd program has taught me that there are critical ways to intertwine the study of poverty and human capability in all realms of life. My passion and career trajectory is now the public health of ethnic minorities, and the Shepherd program has undoubtedly guided me here and helped me gain experience in this area throughout college.

Kate LeMasters interned at Caritas of Austin in 2012.   She is researching the pregnancy experiences of Roma women in Romania (2015-2016).

Kate LeMasters interned at Caritas of Austin in 2012. She is researching the pregnancy experiences of Roma women in Romania (2015-2016).

My Poverty 101 class opened up to me a world that I did not know existed, one of cyclical poverty and deprivation that reaches people in the United States and in every other country around the world. I was particularly interested in the poverty experienced by those from other countries now residing in ours. I worked as a Shepherd Consortium intern at Caritas of Austin the summer after my first year with refugees and immigrants as a housing case manager. I had many memorable clients, one of whom was a Middle Eastern woman who had just seen her husband murdered in her home country. Not only did she have untreated mental health issues due to that day, but she also had physical health problems, a significant language barrier, children to attend to, and many more issues that impeded her success in America. Seeing her case made me realize that had her physical and mental health been in good condition, her other barriers would begin to seem surmountable, but she could not get through a meeting with me without being in intensive psychological and physical pain.

Because of this experience, when I returned to Washington and Lee, I began to further integrate my experience as a Shepherd intern with my coursework. In my Economics of Social Issues class, I further connected peoples’ health with their well-being. I wanted to understand more fully how peoples’ health was connected to their quality of life, and the summer after my sophomore year I was an international Shepherd intern in Accra, Ghana at the West Africa AIDS Foundation. There I worked with many mothers and children with HIV, a marginalized minority, and I conducted a survey on why people diagnosed with HIV did not tell their sexual partners and families about their diagnosis. It was here that I drew connections between peoples’ societies and their health, how social disadvantage and marginalization drastically lessened peoples’ well-being. Whether they were refugees in America or HIV positive mothers in Ghana, society’s stigmatization, treatment of mental health issues, and more, drastically impacted (and often worsened) their original physical health condition.

The Shepherd Consortium and the Program at Washington and Lee provided me with these two experiences in Texas and in Ghana that have fundamentally shaped my current trajectory. Completing my two internships inspired me to further my understanding of public health at the international level, as I had seen it at the local level before. I enrolled in a study abroad program in Geneva, Switzerland, Rabat, Morocco, and in Cluj, Romania for Global Health and Development Policy and there saw how international protocols for global health came about. I saw how medicine for HIV was disseminated in Sub-Saharan Africa and how refugees and immigrants received health services across the world.

With the combined knowledge of how peoples’ health was influenced by their local society in Texas and Ghana and by international health standards set in Switzerland, I entered my senior year at Washington and Lee working to further my understanding of public health issues from a more academic and research-oriented perspective. As I became more interested in the social determinants of health of ethnic minorities, I worked alongside Shepherd program faculty and was able to conduct research on the Navajo Native American Indian reservation in Arizona over Winter break. Through my firsthand experiences on Navajo Nation and in Ghana and Romania, I assessed how institutional power relations in ethnically divided societies affect the health of marginalized minorities. The Shepherd program faculty then continued to guide me as I looked at the moral issues related to healthcare provision in these ethnically divided societies.

Most important, they have guided me in my post-graduation plans, as I am returning to Romania in the fall of 2015 to conduct an independent study on the maternal health of Roma women, a marginalized minority in rural Romania. Had it not been for my Shepherd intern experiences and continued involvement with the program at Washington and Lee, I likely would have not made the connection between peoples’ social disadvantage and their health. It is only through these experiences that I have gained both firsthand and academic experience in this field and am now working to expose peoples’ social barriers to health in order to help break them down.

After having conducted research in Romania during the academic year of 2015-2016, I plan to enter a Masters of Science in Public Health program to further develop my skills as a researcher in public health, focusing on marginalized peoples in a global setting. I hope to then enroll in a PhD program in Global Health, so that I can undertake more focused research and work with marginalized peoples to improve their physical health and overall well-being in the United States and abroad.


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