Swetha Desai '07

Swetha DesaiSwetha Desai, ’07, received the Alumni Achievement Award for the significant, positive impact of her work in developing countries.

Desai, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Sacred Heart University and a Master of Public Health from George Washington University, said, “It was an honor and a surprise when I heard that I had been selected to receive the award; however, I do strongly feel that there is much more to be accomplished around the world regarding public health. I have only scratched the surface - if that. It is a thankless profession, but one I feel is truly worthwhile.”

All nominations for the Alumni Achievement Award come from the Sacred Heart community, according to Kristy Cioffi, ’02, the director of Alumni Engagement at the time. She explained that the nominations are reviewed by a five-person committee that consists of members of the Sacred Heart University Alumni Association Board of Directors. Those members then send in their selections to alumni relations’ office. This process is still in place today.

“Swetha was well supported by the committee as the recipient of the Alumni Excellence Award,” said Cioffi. “Her work during her studies both here at SHU and while completing her master’s is more than impressive. What also stood out for the committee was that while doing her research for her master’s, she chose to take on a cause to help those who were in need of help in developing countries. In addition, she worked abroad in south India for two months helping women and children and took part in developing a report for UNICEF on child marriages, labor and health.

“I think the most unbelievable part is that Swetha was only 24 when her application was sent in. She has accomplished more in her 20s than many do in a lifetime.”
Desai, from Redding, spent six weeks doing research in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India, for Vasavya Mahila Mandali. “While I was there, it was a scorching 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and in the upper 80s at night. I wanted to round off my education with an experience doing field work in India,” she said.

The NGO, or non-governmental organization, mainly works with women and children, but they also serve families, she said. “While I was there I designed and implemented an impact assessment to see how the NGO was serving people living with HIV/AIDS, while also on anti-retroviral therapy, in the slum areas of Vijayawada.

“It was fascinating to learn from these people,” she said. “I met strong individuals who were so down to earth and open to questions. I worked with a counselor and a social worker, and much of the credit goes to them; if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to go out into the slums and conduct the assessment. Much of it was done in their native tongue, Telugu, of which I was not familiar. I had to pick it up fairly quickly since I was the only foreigner there.”

She also conducted informal English as a Second Language sessions for some staff and personnel who wanted to learn English. She distributed free educational supplies for underprivileged children, most of whom are children affected by AIDS. “These are children who have had one or both parents die because of the disease,” said Desai. “Just seeing their bright, intelligent, faces was enough to humble me.

“All in all, it was a beautiful and enriching experience and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Like I said before, there is still a lot that needs to be done, and I have barely scratched the surface. HIV/AIDS is an ongoing problem around the world and government officials need to be aware of this; although most are, there is not enough funding going toward programs to alleviate the pandemic.”

Prior to her stay in India, she was an intern on the AIDSTAR-Two Project at the Management Sciences for Health in Arlington, Va., for slightly more than a year. “During my time there, I gained valuable experience related to public health and HIV/AIDS,” she said. “The AIDSTAR-Two Project entails strengthening organizational capacity-building in developing countries so that programs geared toward HIV/AIDS can take matters into their own hands. The definition of capacity-building must first be clarified in order to achieve the goal of the project. In order to do this, I conducted a literature review of capacity-building related to HIV in developing countries. Along with some team members, I co-authored a position paper entitled, ‘Challenges Encountered in Capacity Building: Review of Literature and Selected Tools.’”

She added, “It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to co-author a vital paper in the capacity-building world, especially as an intern. The people I worked with and the projects I worked on were diverse and innovative. I was more than happy to be a part of it.”

In January 2011, Desai returned to Management Sciences for Health in Arlington, VA to work as an administrative coordinator on Tuberculosis projects.  She is glad to be putting her experience to good use in a job in global public health. “Although I have been a research assistant in a few organizations and universities, academic/biological research is not one of my goals at the moment,” she said. “I would ultimately like to be more involved in field research; that is, going out into developing countries and conducting surveys and research there. I am very interested in more of the international development and human rights side, like child labor and child trafficking, and would love to pursue a career involved with that.”

As for what she learned to prepare her for future endeavors, Desai said, “These internships added to my experience and skills. My internship in India only reaffirmed my desire to work in a global public health setting, while my previous time at Management Sciences for Health allowed me to realize that I am capable of handling a variety of projects, challenges and responsibilities.

“I am excited to be back at Management Sciences for Health and I am hoping that further opportunities will come my way so I can use the skills I have gained and pick up new ones.”