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Health & Wellness + In the World

Attacking a Crisis in Kenya

BU alum’s nonprofit brings relief to one community


Michelle Chang (third from left) hopes to improve heath care in Kenya, where average life expectancy is 59 years. Photo courtesy of Michelle Chang

Michelle Chang cannot abide human suffering. That may be true of most people, but Chang is a rarity: altruistic and tenacious, fiercely determined to effect change.

In summer 2007, following her freshman year, Chang (SAR’10) participated in service trips to Bangladesh and Cambodia, where she worked with hospital groups that needed extra hands. She spent a few weeks assisting doctors and handing out antibiotics and vitamins. “And then we walked away,” she says. Concerned about what happened after the volunteers left, Chang made a decision. “If I wanted to continue overseas service and help the underprivileged,” she says, “I had to be a doctor.”

Before the start of junior year, Chang transferred to Sargent College from the College of Arts & Sciences, changing her major from biology to human physiology. She also took another trip, this time to Kenya, where she volunteered at a hospital. “I wanted to learn more about hospital systems in impoverished countries,” she says, “in order to determine what kind of doctor to be and how to approach health care in that kind of setting.” She stayed for two months, accompanying doctors and nurses to slums and villages, handing out medicine, and removing chiggers—parasitic arthropods—from people’s feet. “I would go back to these same slums, and see the same people, with the same diseases, in the same tattered clothes. The chiggers would return, because these people had no shoes and no floors. And I thought, ‘I’m not really doing anything.’ It broke my heart. I decided that I couldn’t return until I became a doctor. I promised to send money, and said, ‘I’ll be back in 10 years.’”

But when she returned home, Chang couldn’t stop thinking about Kenya. “And then it hit me one day,” she says. “I didn’t have to wait 10 years. I could go back and take professionals with me.”

That epiphany was the beginning of Ambassadors for Sustained Health (ASH), a nonprofit organization founded by Chang that focuses on one specific impoverished community—Kitale, in western Kenya—addressing immediate health issues, as well as their root causes. “There are so many barriers to acquiring good health care—unclean water, lack of jobs, lack of transportation,” says Chang. “We want to eradicate all the barriers. We want to provide sustainable health and use all of our resources in a multidisciplinary, holistic grassroots approach over an indefinite period of time.”

Chang says that her Sargent experience has been invaluable in helping her focus on her goals. When she was writing a business plan for ASH, she was guided through the process by Shelley Brown, a SAR health sciences clinical instructor. She also took a class in international public health. “I am so grateful for the opportunities that Sargent has provided me,” she says.

Clinical experience was an option for Chang’s graduating class; it is now a requirement. “It’s so clear that their real-world experience helps them see things in a new way when they’re back in class,” says Judith Schotland, a SAR clinical associate professor and director of the human physiology program. “And our classes prepare them before they go off into the world. They arrive there with a solid background in human physiology and having learned such hands-on procedures as applying electrocardiogram electrodes and recording the EKG and taking blood pressure.”

At her graduation this past May, Chang received a Twiness Award, which recognizes “seniors who exemplify the ideals of service, loyalty, thoughtfulness, and excellence of scholarship.” She decided to delay medical school for a year, spending this past summer in Kenya working for ASH. Chang was joined by a group of students—mostly from BU—and young professionals. “We wanted to go from house to house and do something like a health census,” says Chang. “Then our organization would have measurable data.” Other urgent concerns included combating malaria with proper medication and establishing a microfinancing program to enable villagers to create jobs. A team of architects from the Boston chapter of Architecture for Humanity was among the experts traveling with Chang, seeking to create a model for better flooring and roofing. “We want to empower native community members and the native hospital, so that they can sustain these measures,” she says. This fall, Chang moved to New York, where she is working for her nonprofit and doing clinical research at Columbia University Medical Center.

“Michelle is amazing,” says Schotland. “She has done this on her own. Her international experiences have profoundly influenced her own career goals, and her energy has influenced many of her peers.”

Chang says that as a result of her work abroad, she is leaning toward a career as a surgeon. “Surgery really appeals to me because it’s attacking the problem,” she says.

This article originally appeared in the 2010-2011 edition of Inside Sargent.


2 Comments on Attacking a Crisis in Kenya

  • Anonymous on 11.30.2010 at 8:56 am

    Very Inspirational Story

    Great work and progress ASH and Michelle Chang. You insipire us all. Keep it up!

  • James Getonga on 02.07.2011 at 8:13 am

    A Kenyan's Perspective

    As an international student from Kenya at BU, I’m humbled by your initiative directed toward the people of Kenya.

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