Kenya Trip Inspires Global Health Projects

Written by
Aimee Bronfeld, Center for Health and Wellbeing
May 10, 2024

It’s one thing to learn about health inequities in the classroom; it’s quite another to see what they look like in the real world.

In January, the Center for Health and Wellbeing (CHW) sponsored a trip to Kenya for 19 Princeton juniors minoring in global health and health policy. The fully funded experience, supported by the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), was designed to give the students a deeper understanding of global health challenges in a lower-middle income country. The trip itself spanned two weeks, but its impact has endured among the participants, inspiring service, philanthropy, research, and other engagement in pursuit of stronger, healthier communities.

Empowering Changemakers

Experiential learning is a vital component of the Global Health Program (GHP), which blends coursework and field work to bring health policy issues to life. The Kenya trip, led by CHW staff, faculty, and postdoctoral research associates, reflects that commitment.

“Our primary goal was to increase the students’ awareness of health inequities and systems in the Global South,” said CHW Executive Director Gilbert Collins. 

“The trip served as a bridge between the two required courses for the minor and strengthened the cohort component of the GHP program,” added Heather Howard, professor of the practice and co-director of GHP. “For example, we discussed case studies centering on Kenyan health policy issues in the Critical Perspectives in Global Health Policy course. Students also explored Kenya’s health care system, disease burden, and major demographic and epidemiologic challenges in preparation for the trip.”

Princeton students and researchers conduct field work at Mpala Research Center

Princeton students and staff conduct field work at Mpala Research Centre.

The trip itinerary included interactions with policymakers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), clinicians, educators, community members, and other stakeholders. Highlights included tours of UNICEF Kenya and the United Nations, and meetings with Kenyan clinicians, U.S. Ambassador Meg Whitman ’77, and various officials managing U.S.-funded health programs in Kenya. The cohort also spoke with representatives from the Beyond Zero Campaign, an NGO aimed at improving maternal and child health outcomes in Kenya, and researchers at the Mpala Research Centre, where they participated in lab and field exercises.

“We were very intentional about giving students a real-world perspective on how health care is delivered in a country that has urban poor, rural, remote, and even nomadic populations,” said Alyssa Sharkey, a CHW affiliate and lecturer at SPIA. “We wanted them to see the health issues faced by people who live in the most disadvantaged communities and how health policy works in these types of settings.” 

By all accounts, the most impactful experiences were conversations with residents of Mathare, an urban slum, or informal settlement, organized through the NGO Slum Dwellers International, and the students’ visit to Daraja Academy, a school for high-achieving girls who otherwise might not have access to a high school education. These meetings were profoundly enlightening and moving, fostering personal connections while exposing the influence of poverty, housing, education, and other social determinants of health. They also planted seeds for change. Several of the trip’s participants returned to Princeton with new ideas for advancing global health.  

Strengthening Health Systems and Communities

At Nairobi’s sprawling slum area of Mathare, residents are plagued by food insecurity, overcrowding, and other harsh living conditions. The Princeton group met for several hours with Mathare community activists, service providers, and advocates while obtaining a firsthand look at their dwellings, primarily constructed of mud and corrugated plastic. They heard their stories, learned about their hardships, and discussed issues affecting the residents’ health and wellbeing, from contraception to the lack of sanitation, clean drinking water, and medical care. 

These eye-opening experiences, combined with other aspects of the trip, prompted participants to embark upon two major research projects that will inform policies and help to strengthen health systems in Kenya:

  • Reproductive Health – Sharkey will join Postdoctoral Research Associate Katie Donnelly and researcher Gugulethu Moyo to examine the reproductive health challenges faced by Kenyan girls and young women, who are burdened with high rates of gender-based violence and teen pregnancies. Funded by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, the three-year project will bring together an interdisciplinary team of researchers and organizations to explore the material and cultural causes of these challenges and to develop innovative solutions. Four GHP students will serve as research assistants.
  • Primary Care Services – Sharkey is also collaborating with Thia Bian ’25, a comparative literature major, on a project for the Kisumu County government and UNICEF Kenya. Their research, conducted this summer, will focus on primary care and the county’s health facilities. Sharkey and Bian will analyze data to evaluate Kisumu County’s readiness for providing services compliant with Kenya’s new Primary Care Network policy. The goal is to ensure that all Kenyans have access to essential health care.
Emmie Pickerill speaks with residents of urban slum

Emmie Pickerill '25 speaks with residents of Mathare, an urban slum.

Visiting the urban slum inspired philanthropy as well. Emmie Pickerill ’25, an anthropology major, led a fundraising project at Princeton to purchase fitness equipment for the Mathare slums. After learning more about their needs, Pickerill coordinated a charity auction hosted by Princeton’s Quadrangle Club, of which she is a member. The event raised close to $1,500 for the “Be You, Do You” program, a Mathare community initiative addressing noncommunicable diseases and mental health challenges in the neighborhood, and another local mental health and wellness organization. “We are planning to do more fundraising for Mathare in the future, especially considering the recent floods they have experienced, but are excited about this start,” said Pickerill.

Bridging Education to Opportunity

The last stop on the trip was Daraja Academy, a beacon of hope, safety, and promise for marginalized girls in Kenya. Daraja means “bridge” in Swahili, reflecting the school’s mission of offering these girls a secondary education, which is widely recognized as the fastest route out of poverty. 

According to the academy, 95% of its graduates attend a college or university and 100% percent of them self-identify as leaders. Daraja alumnae hold elected positions in Kenya, launch successful careers, invest in their families and communities, and boost the nation’s economy. 

Fatima Diallo ’25 (left) with a student at Daraja Academy, with whom she has established a friendship.

Fatima Diallo ’25 (left) with a student at Daraja Academy, with whom she has established a friendship.

Yet Daraja turns away more girls than it can admit every year, due to lack of funding. 

Struck by that humbling reality, trip participant Fatima Diallo ’25, an anthropology major, organized a fundraiser for the school. Sociology major Adriana Alvarado ’25 and Asa Santos ’25, an anthropology major, joined her in the endeavor, as well as Eman Ali ’25, who is majoring in neuroscience. Though Ali did not travel to Kenya, she is minoring in global health and health policy and cares deeply for the cause. 

“The school is trying to expand because they have a limited number of seats. But education is really important and all girls deserve that opportunity,” said Diallo. “I’m hoping this fundraiser will let them know that they have friends in other parts of the world… that other people care and are rooting for them.”

The Princeton classmates plastered fundraising posters around campus and appealed to guests at events hosted by Princeton’s Muslim Life Program during Ramadan. All proceeds of the ongoing campaign will benefit Daraja, empowering more Kenyan girls to attain their full potential and pay it forward.

Alyssa Sharkey, equally impressed by Daraja, chose to financially sponsor an academy student for all four years of high school. She is now connected with the young girl whose family would otherwise not have been able to pay for her to go to school. The student told Sharkey that her dream is to one day become a neurosurgeon. 

“Education is one of the most effective ways to impact someone’s health and life,” said Sharkey. “If you give a girl or a young woman an education, it not only affects her future, it affects the future of her children, her family, and her community for generations.” 

Leading the World Toward a Healthier Future 

Following the Kenya trip, many participants are searching for additional opportunities to improve health equity and outcomes in the developing world, where resources are limited, and people struggle for opportunities to optimize their health and wellbeing.

Asa Santos will head back to Daraja Academy this summer for an eight-week internship sponsored by the Center for Health and Wellbeing. In partnership with Daraja students, Santos will develop educational modules focused on personal hygiene, vaccination, and other health-related topics for the girls to bring back to their communities; will lead extracurricular activities related to science and music; and will conduct senior thesis research by investigating how access to reproductive education in Kenya influences health decisions and outcomes.

Princeton students engage with rural artisans.

Princeton students engage with rural artisans.

Emmie Pickerill will undertake an internship with UNICEF New York after learning more about the organization’s mission at the Regional Office in Nairobi. Specifically, she hopes to support social behavior change interventions with the Child Protection team based in New York City. This work focuses on lowering structural barriers that hinder people from adopting positive practices, and societies from becoming more equitable, inclusive, cohesive, and peaceful. 

“The Kenya trip deepened my appreciation for the complexities of global health and highlighted the importance of considering local contexts in shaping effective health policies,” she said. “I am grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime experience and hope to continue applying the lessons I learned in my academics and beyond.”


Learn more about CHW’s Global Health Program at

Visit for more information about Daraja Academy and opportunities for supporting its mission.