Marissa Cloutier, '14: Considering Community Health in Ghana

October 15, 2013

Marissa CloutierMarissa Cloutier, '14, is majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, with a concentration in the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service. She is a member of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program and an all-league women's tennis team member. She is the daughter of William and Brenda Cloutier of Grosse Ile, Mich., and a graduate of Grosse Ile High School.

For Marissa Cloutier, '14, a beautiful new community kitchen in a rural African village underscored a lesson of how not to do aid work. "The kitchen, which was built several years ago by an aid organization, has never been used because the community believes it is unsafe to cook in an enclosed structure," said Cloutier. "They were cooking on clay stoves outside and the new building remains unused."

Cloutier spent much of last summer in Ghana interning with Global Medical Brigades (GB), a nonprofit sustainable development organization that provides health care and development assistance to poor communities in Central America and Africa. During her internship, Cloutier traveled to seven communities in Ghana gathering cultural information that would help GB develop programs suited to each community's specific needs and customs.

Along with formal interviews with community leaders and clinic patients, Cloutier also had the opportunity to go door-to-door, talking with a wide variety of people with the help of a translator. "We spent a great deal of time in the communities learning about their lifestyles, culture and health concerns," Cloutier said. "It was very rewarding to work with the community people to improve GB's programs, even though it was challenging to do so in only one month."

The Importance of Knowing the Culture

Cloutier was also able to make a distinct contribution. "A woman I interviewed told me she had never been to school, but years ago, a visiting nurse held a health and hygiene workshop with her family at their home," Cloutier recalled. "I asked other people in the community about their experience with these family workshops and others seemed to also recall a great deal of what they had learned."

Cloutier wrote a short report about this education model and presented it to the GB Ghana staff. "Global Brigades is now looking into using this new model to teach hygiene and nutrition," Cloutier said. "It was really rewarding to make a contribution that could help improve Global Brigade's programs."

The Ghana trip was Cloutier's second experience with GB; as a member of Albion College's GB student group, she assisted in a traveling clinic in Honduras in 2011. "Some issues that exist in Honduras were also clearly present in Ghana. For example, malaria and parasites that result from a lack of clean drinking water are common in both places," Cloutier said. "But the people in Honduras have a lot of problems with tooth decay because of their diets, which are high in sugar. The oral health of the Ghanaians I saw was much better.

"Being able to visit both places made me realize the importance of knowing the culture I am serving," Coutier noted. "Programs that are desperately needed in some places simply will not work in others because peoples' needs, culture and beliefs differ greatly around the world."

Tying It Together

The two experiences, Cloutier noted, "have helped me develop a better understanding of global health and given me the opportunity to work with physicians and leaders in public health on a daily basis. This internship tied together my academic concentrations in public policy and service and pre-medical studies and has even given me the opportunity to learn more about biology, which is my major, "she said.

"I am confident that this internship will help me as I write my thesis this year and as I pursue a career in the healthcare field," Cloutier said. "It has been great to learn so much outside the classroom while also making use of the knowledge that I have acquired as a student at Albion."