Meet Our Alumni: Katherine Banchoff

Meet Our Alumni: Katherine Banchoff

08.7.2021
alumni july 2.jpg

Katherine Banchoff, graduated from the ISGlobal-University of Barcelona tropEd Master in International Health in 2019. She is now the Director of the nonprofit organization Empowered Birth Movement.

 

How did you come to study the tropEd Master of International Health?

As an undergrad student in a coal-mining region of southwestern Virginia, I was very involved in environmental justice movements and because I was really passionate (and angry) about the inequity and injustices that revolved around where people lived, I wanted to work in environmental planning and sustainable community development in low-income settings. This brought me to Guatemala, Honduras, and India, but what I didn’t necessarily realize at the time was that all of these experiences, starting in rural Appalachia, were intersecting with public health. In the community-led project I was working on in rural India, all five of the villages who were participating in the project prioritized local WASH issues as their key priorities they wanted to address. I was also living with a group of women who were leading a human trafficking campaign at the time and was learning a lot from them. So at that point everything came full circle and I realized that all along it was actually the public health side of things that I was the most passionate about. And that realization was hugely transformational in shifting my personal and professional priorities. Discovering the tropEd Master programme (started my search while I was still in India!) felt like a perfect way to continue learning from an multicultural group of peers and instructors based all around the world. Because my interests in global health were so influenced by the lived experiences of people I’d met, the opportunity to be a part of a multinational and cultural cohort of students and professors as well as travel to other countries to complete my Advanced Modules or collaborate on international research was a huge draw for me. Studying in Spain specifically felt like a great chance to improve my Spanish and be close to the humanitarian rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Discovering the tropEd Master programme felt like a perfect way to continue learning from an multicultural group of peers and instructors based all around the world

What aspects of the programme did you enjoy the most?

So many! I always really valued how we were encouraged to have open and sometimes challenging or controversial discussions that confronted our own opinions or biases. Having such a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds represented in the classroom always led to really stimulating and important conversations, many of which impacted how deeply I understood certain topics.

I really enjoyed being able to choose from a long list of Advanced Modules at partner institutions in various countries – I had so many options for the courses I could take which really let me tailor-make a specialization for my studies based solely off my interests and goals. Taking these classes at other universities allowed me to network with a huge group of professors, researchers, and students from all over the world, much more so than if I had stayed in one city. I also really loved how the programme was structured so that the students only took one class at a time and could focus 100% on that one class for a couple of weeks, rather than taking multiple classes at the same time throughout a semester. For example, being able to spend two weeks focused every day on Maternal Health and then the next two weeks focused on Biostatistics really enabled me to dive into each of those courses fully and ultimately develop a much more comprehensive understanding of each topic.

Kaherina in Colombia.

What was it like living in Barcelona?

Ahhh Barcelona! I could just rave about it forever. To this day I think of Barcelona as being one of my favorite cities (and am always thinking of how I can get back there)! The energy of the city is so vibrant, you wake up every morning inspired. I loved the richness of the local art and music scene and of course the practical day-to-day considerations like a great transportation system, being able to bike everywhere, and living in an international hub that attracts cool events and interesting people. And the beach definitely didn’t hurt.

When it comes down to it, I loved Barcelona for a million reasons but the biggest two were the people I met and the beautiful nature: going to my Catalan friend’s big family calcotada and sailing off the Costa Brava are two cherished memories that I feel embody my “Barcelona experience” well. It’s such a social city with lots to do and see and experience (read: a dream for extroverts). At the same time, you can always find a quiet café or nature spot where you can set up a hammock or forage for asparagus without seeing another soul. Barcelona is also really well connected to other coastal towns, hiking, beaches, and one of my favorite finds, Congost de Mont-Rebei, where you can kayak in a gorge-eous gorge. I was able to integrate very easily into life in the city and by the time I left I was fully fluent in Spanish and even picked up a bit of Catalan (it helped that I lived in a big flat with Spaniards, Catalans, Peruvians, and Chileans).

What would your advice be for a student thinking to study Global Health?

Do it! Okay, okay…think about it (*whispers* do it). Global health is a huge field with a lot of different sectors. On one hand you have the data, the disease, and the research. On the other hand, you have the people, the social norms, the systems. For a lot of people, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear global health is malaria, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, etc….and of course now COVID-19 is a great example of a global health problem. But we also have sexual and reproductive health, humanitarian aid, environmental health, mental health, health policy, governance etc. You will find your niche! The skills you build in the Master’s of Global Health can be applied everywhere in the world, so you have a lot of flexibility in how and where you want to focus your future. And especially if you intend to work in a country that’s not your own, my biggest advice to you would be to get curious about decolonizing global health and then apply that lens to your education and career.

Especially if you intend to work in a country that’s not your own, my biggest advice to you would be to get curious about decolonizing global health and then apply that lens to your education and career

How have you kept in touch with the ISGlobal community?

I made so many amazing friends through the Master’s that I still stay in touch with! Even the people who I don’t stay in touch with regularly, I still know I can always email or message them on LinkedIn to ask about a job opportunity or even tourism recommendations – and I’ve done both (good moment to add to anyone who is reading this you are always welcome to message me on LinkedIn)! I’ve also stayed in touch with professors to get feedback on an independent project I’m working on, which I really appreciate. Everything you hear about the power of networking is true! As a tropEd Student Representative I was lucky to get to know students and professors at other Global Health institutions in addition to ISGlobal and I’ve also stayed in touch with them. Now with Covid, a lot of events are being held online which is another great way for alumni to stay connected to ISGlobal from afar.

Accion Contra el Hambre hands-on emergency nutrition center set up on basketball court in Barcelona.

How has the programme helped you achieve your ambitions?

I “found my niche” in refugee/migrant health and women’s health, thanks to some amazing modules, seminars, and professors along the way. I also developed a strong interest in mental health and was able to shadow a psychiatrist on her appointments with refugees/migrants in the Raval Centro de Atención Primaria (CAP) and contribute to research in the Vall d’Hebron Department for Transcultural Psychiatry while writing my thesis on human trafficking for sexual exploitation of women and girls. After graduating, I went to Colombia to work as a Field Officer on the Venezuela border and later founded a nonprofit (empoweredbirthmovement.com) that confronts maternal health inequities among refugees/migrants in Europe by strengthening community-based social support systems.

I “found my niche” in refugee/migrant health and women’s health, thanks to some amazing modules, seminars, and professors along the way

While the hands-on modules of the Master’s (i.e. building an emergency nutrition center on a basketball court with Acción Contra el Hambre) gave me the practical skills that I was able to apply in the field, the theoretical coursework taught me how to think critically about the intersecting layers of social determinants of health and in the context of the nonprofit, ultimately made me extremely interested in the systemic and institutional factors behind maternal health disparities and considerations such as rights of a birthing person, medical racism, and obstetric violence. This is a project that has not only been inspired and informed by my experience as a Global Health student and professional, but has also been supported by a number of tropEd connections I made as a student.