USF College of Public Health graduate student Jillian Edge received a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to explore flooding in Malaysia in order to better understand the impacts of flooding on access to public service in the state of Sarawak.
She’s earning her MPH from the Department of Global Health in global disaster management and humanitarian relief from USF’s distance learning program. Prior to joining the COPH, she earned her undergraduate degree from UCLA and worked in emergency management in Seattle and a public health department in California.
The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to help build relationships between the U.S. and other nations to solve global problems.
Edge is one of 1,900 U.S. citizens participating in the program for the academic year 2016-17.
“Initially, like arriving in any new place, it was hard to find context for a lot of what I was seeing,” she said. “But, if there is anything I have learned in public health, it is to observe and ask questions.”
In Sarawak, Edge has been examining ways that the population’s access to government services can be influenced by extreme weather events like flooding.
Because Sarawak is located on a river delta, flooding and extreme weather frequently disrupts public and social services, according to Edge.
During her time in Malaysia, Edge said she’s also experienced unexpected opportunities outside of her research, such as volunteering in the tuberculosis investigation unit as well as meeting several other academics, who are now good friends, from around town.
“Every time I said yes to something—whether it was an opportunity to volunteer, a dinner with friends, or chance to give a talk—it was an education, and broadened my perspective not only of my work, but my worldview as well,” Edge said.
Edge is spending the duration of her Fulbright Student Researcher Scholarship in Kuching, the capital of the Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak.
According to Edge, Sarawak is in East Malaysia—the part on the island of Borneo—and is very different than Kuala Lumpur and the more populated peninsular side of the country.
“While my focus is urban flooding and analyzing local attitudes and coping strategies in the capital, Sarawak as a state is mostly uninhabited jungle. So like I said, very different from the U.S.,” she said.
This grant will allow for a better understanding of how increasing extreme weather conditions can cause everyday interferences for more vulnerable populations, Edge said.
She has been in Sarawak since September and said being abroad during the past year has led her to view the U.S. through a new lens.
“I, as another Fulbrighter mentioned the other day, am going home to a different country. My field of public health is threatened, my focus on humanitarian aid is deemed unfundable, and my own health care plan may no longer exist when I return,” Edge said. “On one hand, it has been a surreal ride to hear about ‘fake news’ and see clips of hate speeches from the other side of the Pacific. But more than that, it has been empowering to see men and especially women standing up and choosing to take responsibility in the wake of everything that has happened in the last six months.”
Edge said her experience abroad has validated her belief that it’s the men and women at the local level who are choosing to make a difference in quiet ways, something she said she has witnessed often during her time abroad.
“To me, this has reflected something universal I’ve seen in Malaysia and elsewhere: policies may say one thing, but it’s the people choosing to be generous and kind and supportive that make these systems work,” she said. “And I think that revelation—that it’s the people, stupid—will stay at the center of my own work as I continue my career going forward as a reminder of what we are all capable of achieving.”
She said she hopes all public health students consider travel abroad during their time as students.
“Being in public health gives us a privileged insight into the disparity and impacts of policies on the health of our neighbors across the nation,” she said. “But, more importantly, it gives us the tools to step up and do something about it. I think being abroad for so long reminds you of your own skills and what you have to offer, and I hope each of you has that opportunity to realize what amazing things you can accomplish when you step up and put your mind to it.”
Story by Jillian Edge and AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley, USF College of Public Health