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July 2015

Rita Seith had a purpose. Penn State gave her a direction.

Seith, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, graduated in spring 2015 from the Department of Biobehavioral Health with a concentration in Global Health and a minor in Spanish.

She entered the major knowing she wanted to explore epidemiology, the branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases.

“Infectious disease has always been really fascinating to me,” she said. “It’s dynamic.”

Throughout her college career, Seith’s fellow students, as well as her mentors and advisers, encouraged her to explore her options. And her trip abroad last summer, as part of the Global Health program, not only inspired her studies, but also allowed her to get her feet wet.

More than 4,500 Penn State students are enrolled in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD) studying a wide-array of fields, each committed to the concept of improving the quality of life for others. Seith, who found a home in the Department of Biobehavioral Health (BBH), is one of those HHD students, and this is her story.

The Global Health minor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health accepts about 20 students a year due to fieldwork requirements. Students are required to study abroad in different countries based on their interests.

In summer 2014, Seith was assigned to spend six weeks in Tanzania, Africa. She was part of two groups, of three students each, which traveled to the country in East Africa.

Seith and her group shadowed Tanzanian medical students to learn about their procedures.

“The trip was not focused on us teaching, but on us learning,” she said.

And while Seith experienced firsthand how the medical system worked there, the trip also allowed other learning opportunities.

Having no Internet access forced the group to connect on other levels, Seith said, which was really rewarding.

“All you can do each evening is just stay up talking,” she said.

Seeing other cultures opened her eyes to how diverse people are, and helped solidify her belief that no one idea or way of life is “correct,” Seith said.

While in Tanzania, Seith met some epidemiologists and was encouraged and inspired by their work, which helped confirm she was on the right path.

“Going abroad really confirmed my direction,” Seith said. “Regardless of your major or career choice, anyone pursuing Global Health should go abroad. That trip was one of the best things I decided to do.”



Back at University Park, Seith received guidance from her courses and professors.

“I felt like what learned in class is applicable to real life,” she said. “There was a substantial takeaway from all the classes. BBH does a really good job with making us understand all factors in health.”

Because one of Seith’s interests includes infectious diseases, she was paired with Shedra Amy Snipes, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, to work in her research lab to study pesticide exposure and its health effects.

She also had independent study with Joseph Gyekis, instructor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health, in which she mapped diseases and explored disease geography.

“I learned a mapping program to map health data,” Seith said. “I had someone to work with on it. BBH is good about letting you explore your interests.”

In March 2012, Seith was involved in the Penn State Medical Brigade – Panama, where she raised money to assist health care clinics abroad.

Medical Brigade volunteers will set up temporary clinics in pre-identified communities in Eastern Panama to provide health care where access is limited. Each community receives a brigade every three to four months.

Students on the brigade are given the opportunity to shadow licensed health care professionals while learning about local Panamanian culture.

Electronic patient records are collected during the brigade to ensure patient follow-up as well as to monitor overall community health trends. Between brigades, the in-country team maintains relationships with the communities to provide follow-up and conduct community health worker training aimed at empowering local leaders to perpetuate a consistent level of health care. For every student who volunteers on a Global Medical Brigade, 60 patients can see a doctor who otherwise would not be able to.

After graduation Seith plans to pursue epidemiology as a career and obtain her Master’s Degree in public health.