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Dickinson is known for its strong showing in the Peace Corps, and Christina Baum ’14 credits the multifaceted experience she had while on campus with preparing her for her two-year Peace Corps assignment. As a community health advisor in Malawi, Africa, Baum, the former biology major who earned a health studies certificate, now sees health through an interdisciplinary lens, one that brings into focus factors that might not be obvious at first glance. Read on to see what drives her, how she was affected by Greek life at Dickinson and what Charles Dickens quote helps her when she’s feeling overwhelmed.
Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education applies to what you’re up to now?
Dickinson trained me to see the world from many viewpoints, not just that of a biologist. Over my four years, I took courses ranging from photography and multivariable calculus to Buddhism and Latino studies. I learned to think as a mathematician, artist, historian, linguistic, scientist, etc. Now I’m understanding health issues in a similar, multidisciplinary manner. For example, while my background in biology is certainly useful, understanding the AIDS epidemic in Malawi and developing effective tactics to approach it requires the consideration of social, economic, political and cultural factors. Studying at Dickinson, and especially partaking in the health studies certificate program, taught me how to consider all of these dimensions of health.
What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?
Pi Beta Phi. Being surrounded by a group of talented, driven, virtuous, supportive and capable young women was highly encouraging and allowed me to become more involved with both on- and off-campus opportunities. Additionally, Greek life allowed me to form invaluable, lifelong friendships. I still miss Monday night chapter in our Pi Phi apartment.
What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?
Thanksgiving dinner in the caf. It was an event that my friends and I would discuss for days, or even weeks, preceding the meal. The lines were terribly long, and it was difficult to find a table, but the array of delicious food was astounding. After eating all we could manage and then stuffing ourselves further in the dessert room, we'd retreat home, hunched over with our hands on our aching bellies. It was marvelous.
How do you stay involved with Dickinson?
Last fall I attended Alumni Weekend, during which I reconnected with alumni from a number of classes and visited with current students. In addition, I've remained in contact with a handful of influential professors that shaped my Dickinson experience. While certainly enjoying these interactions, I also feel a sense of responsibility to stay involved with Dickinson. As a prospective student, I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship that made my enrollment possible. In the future, I feel it's my duty to "pass it on" and contribute to the opportunities of another incoming first-year student.
How did you get interested in the Peace Corps, and what about it excites you most?
I had always been intrigued with Peace Corps from a young age but didn't seriously consider it until my senior year. I was drawn to the adventure of immersing myself in a foreign culture and the challenges associated with living in an entirely different way. In addition, I felt compelled to give back to other global citizens who didn't have access to the same resources or opportunities that I did. What excites me the most is the potential to make a serious, lifelong impact in my community. I've heard stories about successful Malawians who still remember the Peace Corps volunteer from their hometown and credit them with the skills and inspiration they gained. I hope to be that volunteer.
What does your current work entail?
Currently, being new to site, my work is focused on community assessment and integration. To understand the needs and weaknesses of my village, I’m gathering information from various community groups, speaking with village leaders, implementing surveys and getting to know my neighbors. From there, I will ascertain how my skills fit with the community's wants and needs. As I transition out of this initial phase, I plan on developing a youth group focused on healthy sexual behaviors and HIV/AIDS. In addition, I’m making arrangements to teach nutrition in combination with home-gardening and cooking demonstrations.
What’s the most challenging part of your work?
Not becoming overwhelmed. It's easy to feel ineffective when considering the magnitude of the challenges that Malawi faces. It has been important to stay positive and remember that even an ostensibly small achievement is still an achievement. I often remind myself of the Charles Dickens quote that says, "No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else."
If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
Right now, I'd probably move my borehole closer to my house. Walking to it, pumping water into my bucket and then carrying it back on my head (especially on laundry day, when my arms are already exhausted) can be a real pain. I give so much credit to the families who live even farther away from it.
Published July 21, 2015