Health promotion grad student reaches out to Kenyan community
Lindsay Palkovitz, right, at a village fruit stand.
Lindsay Palkovitz checks the local garden.
Lindsay Palkovitz and husband Collin with local residents.

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8:47 a.m., April 23, 2010----When Lindsay Palkovitz was 15, she visited a poor rural area in Mexico where the villagers made their living from other people's garbage, picking through piles of trash for copper wire and other items they could sell and burning the remainder to keep warm.

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“It deeply affected me to see people living like that,” she says, “and I'll never forget the smell of burning garbage. It stayed in my clothes and my hair for the rest of the time I was there.”

That experience ignited in Palkovitz a social conscience, and she has since spent time carrying out community development projects in Bulgaria, Uganda, and Kenya.

Now a graduate student in the University of Delaware's Health Promotion Program, Palkovitz plans to conduct a study examining the effects of sociocultural factors on adolescents' sexual behavior in rural Kwale, Kenya. Her ultimate goal is to design a culturally appropriate comprehensive HIV/AIDS and sex education program for adolescents in that community.

Palkovitz, who earned her bachelor's degree in anthropology at UD in 2003, is advised by associate professor Beth Orsega-Smith in the Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition. Her trip to Kenya during UD's 2011 Winter Session will be funded by the Office of Graduate and Professional Education and the Center for International Studies through the Support for Global Research, Internships, and Performances for Graduate Students program.

“The area of Kenya that I'll be working in is a rural, polygamous society where women are marginalized and socially vulnerable,” Palkovitz says. “They have no direct access to resources and have to be partnered with men to survive financially. The incidence of rape is high, and violent and aggressive male sexual behavior is socially normalized.”

Although HIV/AIDS education initiatives have been implemented in Kenya, adolescents there continue to engage in unprotected sex at a young age. Palkovitz is aware that for such programs to be effective, they have to take into account the social mores and taboos of the society.

Her trip next January will focus on gathering data from male and female students between the ages of 12 and 15 in the six primary schools in the Kwale District, as well as from personnel in these schools, through questionnaires and focus groups.

After the proposed study is completed, Palkovitz plans to apply for external funding to support design and implementation of the education program. “Cultural relevance is critical if we expect the schools to welcome the program, the students to receive it, and the desired results to be achieved,” she says.

Palkovitz is no stranger to the Kwale District. She has been there four times for at least a month at a time, working on projects ranging from providing agricultural education to helping women set up small businesses.

“Establishing a global health perspective is important for future health and wellness professionals,” says Orsega-Smith, “and the concept is consistent with UD's Path to Prominence. Lindsay's experiences in Kenya have given her not only the desire but also the knowledge to make a difference.”

“Our health promotion master's degree program is perfect for her and other students like her who are interested in crossing into other areas such as anthropology, psychology, and public health. We require our students to take six core courses, but they can use the additional 12 credits to tailor the program to meet their specific needs and interests.”

Palkovitz plans eventually to go on for a doctorate in medical anthropology. In the meantime, she and her family -- her husband Collin and her baby, due to be born in June -- will live in Kenya for at least a year after she finishes her master's degree to implement the program she develops.

“I would ultimately like to have an academic career while also continuing my fieldwork in Kenya,” she says. “Working at a university would enable me to stay connected with the community and continue working on programs that will promote sustainability and self-sufficiency.”

Article by Diane Kukich

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