Global Passion, Inherited
Wherever she goes, Barbara Kennedy, M.P.H. ’76, keeps the same photograph on her desk. It’s a picture of her daughter at age five, dressed in Kennedy’s shoes and jacket—complete with a nametag—and holding Kennedy’s purse. The little girl is talking to her dolls. “I’m sorry I can’t talk to you now,” Kennedy remembers her saying. “I’ve got to go to work. So I will talk to you when I come back.”
Kennedy, who has lived and traveled all over the world, keeps the photo nearby “to remind myself that I have to balance my life,” though she concedes it isn’t easy. “You can’t work in global health and not travel.”
As vice president of international health for RTI International’s International Development Group, a post she’s had since November, Kennedy oversees the creation of global health programs in at-risk communities throughout the world. Her goal is to visit each major program once a year. Before joining RTI she worked as a global-health consultant, and before that she spent 20 years with the United States Agency for International Development. She’s lived in Africa and Latin America and speaks Portugese and Spanish as well as English.
“Maybe it was in my DNA,” she says of her passion for international health work. “To be honest, I found, and find, a lot of the domestic health issues quite boring. I am not interested in financing Medicare and Medicaid. Never have been.”
While at SPH in the 1970s, Kennedy crossed paths with students from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and that experience fueled her interest in global health.
In her 30-plus years in the field, Kennedy has seen many changes. Gone are the days when 20 or 30 expatriate Americans would sweep into a foreign community to solve its problems—the emphasis now is on using local experts. Although the U.S. government continues to initiate international health programs, foundations such as the Gates, and corporations like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Merck have also become major players. The focus in global health today is less on specific diseases than on developing strong, sustainable health programs.
Kennedy also sees a more direct connection between domestic and global health activities. A few years ago she traveled to Kazakstan to help develop strategies for combating tuberculosis. Officials there wanted to know what the U.S. was doing about the problem.
“Global health is global,” Kennedy says. “Global health also includes work that we have going on here in the U.S., in Canada, in Europe. There are parts of the world—eastern and central Europe and also Latin America—where people are much more interested in what’s working in the U.S. than in Ghana.”
Kennedy’s advice to students who want to work in international health is to volunteer for the Peace Corps or a nongovernmental organization. Learn about health systems and health finance, sustainability and capacity development. Understand something about the priorities of drug companies and the big global health foundations. Go abroad and study side by side with students in another country.
It’s advice her own daughter appears to have taken. The five-year-old in the picture on Kennedy’s desk is now a college student majoring in languages and international relations, who’s planning to spend the summer in France and to study abroad in Madagascar.
Her mother’s shoes, it seems, still fit.
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