One Alumna’s Life-changing and Career-building Work at Drexel and in Lesotho
“I’m doing a PhD in civil and environmental engineering, and I didn’t think I was ever going to be doing that in my life,” said recent Drexel University alumna J’Anna-Mare Lue, who is now a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. “The Dornsife Global Development Scholars program really changed the trajectory of my career period.”
Lue entered the Dornsife program as a chemical engineering major in 2018 to embark on a two-month research endeavor in Lesotho, a landlocked country in southern Africa, in tandem with the Pennoni Honors College’s international STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) Scholars Program. But in 2022, she graduated from Drexel with a dual BS/MS environmental engineering degree. Lue was so inspired by that 2018 experience that she changed her major, started a student organization to continue its work, embarked on a years-long quest to build latrines and host community capacity-building workshops in Lesotho, and joined a research initiative aimed at decolonizing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) research and achieving more equitable research within World Vision International.
“Basically, for four out of the five years I was at Drexel, I worked on this,” said Lue.
The Dornsife Global Development Scholars program is available for Drexel students of all majors and educational levels to engage in fully funded international opportunities in low-income countries. Since 2014, the program has enabled about 100 students (15 to 20 per year, pre-pandemic) to travel to 22 countries within sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America to engage in capacity-building research and development projects related to WASH alongside World Vision, which is the largest international non-government organization distributing water around the world. World Vision funded Lue’s initial Lesotho experience.
From the start, the experience in Lesotho (in Sekameng ADP within the Mafateng District) was already checking off lifelong goals for Lue, who hails from Jamaica. She dreamed of traveling to Africa as more than a tourist and immersing herself in a culture with similarities to her home country. Growing up in rural Jamaica with intermittent access to water, Lue researched the impacts of droughts in Lesotho and gathered feedback from community members about how they felt about WASH and WASH practices. The experience, particularly after being asked by those participants how their answers were going to be recorded and used, sparked a new lifelong goal that carried Lue through the rest of her Drexel experience and beyond.
“Even when I was a chemical engineering major, I had passions in the environmental engineering field, but I thought that was more like a branch of civil engineering, and I didn’t really see it as an interdisciplinary space I wanted to pursue until that experience,” said Lue. “Then I realized I was more interested in water and environmental conditions, because that really impacts public health and wellness in general. And I try to take a Black feminist lens to all the research that I do.”
Lue and the other Dornsife Global Development Scholars who had conducted research in Lesotho — then-first-year student Leila Nzekele, BS public health ‘21, and Sharon Dei-Tumi, MPH epidemiology ‘19 — returned to Drexel wanting to continue what they started, and open it up to more students, including those without the academic or financial opportunity to study or work abroad. They founded the Sanitation Health Aid Relief Project (SHARP) student organization in 2018; Lue was inspired by her personal experiences in Lesotho and Jamaica, as well as her time as a member of Drexel’s West Indian Student Establishment‘s executive board. SHARP was started to raise awareness and education related to WASH issues while also providing relief both around the world (like in Lesotho, chosen through Lue’s experience, leadership and guidance as president from 2019–2022) and locally in Philadelphia. Idris T. Robinson, director of Global Health Programs in the Dornsife School of Public Health and the director of the Dornsife Global Development Scholars program, became SHARP’s advisor.
In 2019, SHARP successfully applied for a $10,000 grant from Projects for Peace, which offers funding to students at certain colleges to pursue grassroots work for the betterment of a community with the aim of peacebuilding.
“Having increased water and access is a form of peace-building, because water and sanitation is a human right and a basic need, and areas with scarce resources can sometimes have high tensions because of scarcity and are more conflict-prone in that sense,” said Lue.
Though everything was set to be complete by the end of summer 2020, the coronavirus pandemic altered the plans, and it became a three-year project. The initial plan was to return to Sekameng, Lesotho, build 10 latrines and create capacity-building community workshops related to disaster, resilience and menstrual hygiene. This would build on the research questions and findings from the initial international experience and meet the recommendations from that research. It wasn’t just for the sake of research, but improved the community’s material conditions. World Vision established a research collaboration to engage in the project.
“We received another year from the grant to complete the project and work on a new bilateral research agreement with World Vision,” said Lue. “Through continuous communication and partnership, World Vision facilitated the project on the ground to completion. We tried really hard to make sure that it wasn’t neo-liberal or colonial. We didn’t just hand off the project to World Vision, but discussed everything with them and made sure plans were feasible on the ground for their local contacts, in their perspective.”
The project in the village of Ha Makintane lasted from January 2021 to September 2022. A total of 15 ventilated improved pit (VIP) latrines were built for household members of 28 adult women, 18 girls, 17 adult men and 11 boys. Additionally, one workshop was held for about 150 people on disaster resilience related to drought, which had been a huge problem when Lue was in Lesotho in 2018, and torrential rains, which has become a more recent concern. Officials from Lesotho’s Ministry of Health helped with trainings on water purification while the Disaster Management Authority shared information related to drought, preparedness and the impact of torrential rains on people’s livelihoods. For a different workshop with 30 women and girls, World Vision partnered with the Amazing Zone NGO to lead demonstrations to make cloth menstruation pads to address issues related to menstrual hygiene and sanitation and improve retention rates of education; girls could have access to inexpensive and sustainable sanitary supplies and could stay in school, and the workshop could create opportunities for social enterprise through participants potentially creating and selling those products.
In the midst of this starting in 2020, World Vision developed a “Roadmap to Impact” global WASH business plan for 2021–2025, and asked the Dornsife Global Development Scholars Program to form a first-of-its-kind research group aimed at decolonizing WASH research and initiatives globally, starting with World Vision’s programs. Lue and Nzekele were part of the Drexel cohort of students involved in that group and investigated inequities experienced by lower- and middle-income countries (LMIC) researchers in the WASH sector; they also recommended steps for more equitable research and practices. They presented their findings, detailed in “Decolonizing WASH Research: Results of a qualitative study and consensus-building process to develop principles for increasing equity in WASH Research,” at three national conferences and recently submitted a paper for peer review.
Lue is also in talks with her partners at World Vision Lesotho, WASH TP Manager Kabelo Tseetsana and Sekameng Area Program Manager Pulane M. Mokheti, to write an academic paper that would disseminate the learning gained during this experience through the intersections of climate justice and water access. Though Lue is now across the country in a doctoral program and has handed off SHARP duties, she wants to share the frameworks used through SHARP and recommended through her decolonizing WASH research for others who do research and engage in WASH work and practices. Thanks to Lue’s time at Drexel, both SHARP and the Dornsife Global Development Scholars Program have changed for the better, Robinson said.
“This project has changed how I approach advising SHARP specifically because it’s really about adopting this model of having students support a project that actually means something to them — what J’Anna did with her work in Lesotho — and can serve as a conduit to connecting research ideas and theory in class, and actually putting some practice to it,” Robinson said. “And in terms of the World Vision partnership, this can serve as a foundation or a template to project development for future students.”
Students applying to the program are matched to countries and projects based on their skills and major, which means some projects are developed to meet specific needs in specific places. Robinson said the new depth of partnership allows for more continuity in projects and programs.
“This is also happening on the heels of completely changing how World Vision addresses international programs through this decolonizing research project that J’Anna is a part of, and that the World Vision research team now has established,” said Robinson. “This has allowed us to realize that we are doing something that’s groundbreaking and has never been done before, and we’re not sacrificing community output or the workers of organizations like World Vision, even though they are part of their own community as practice leaders in development.”
The Dornsife Global Development Scholars program is now open for 2023. Applications are due by Dec. 1. More information is available on the Dornsife School of Public Health website. Students will be potentially placed in the West Africa Region (Ghana, Sierra Leone or Senegal), East Africa Region (Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania or Uganda), or Southern Africa (Zambia, Malawi, Eswatini or Lesotho). Projects are all aligned with the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Sustainable Development Goals of SDG6 (clean water and sanitation) as well as SDG3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG4 (quality education), SDG5 (gender equality), SDG10 (reduced inequalities), SDG11 (sustainable cities and communities) and SDG13 (climate action).
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