When Nick Shungu graduated from Duke in May 2006, he could have applied to medical school to immediately begin pursuing his professional goal of becoming a doctor. But Shungu, who as a Duke undergraduate twice traveled to Africa for intensive research and volunteer experiences, felt a need to return to Africa. After winning a highly competitive Hart Leadership Fellowship, offered through Duke’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy, he is now spending 10 months in Ethiopia working with Save Lives to develop programming and outreach for children and others affected by HIV/AIDS.
“Duke was an unbelievably enriching place to attend school, but truthfully the semester in which I learned the most was the one that I spent studying abroad in Senegal,” said Shungu, whose father is from the Democratic Republic of Congo but who grew up in Lawrenceville, N.J. “I wanted to take a year before med school to explore issues of global health, social inequalities, and simply to share ideas and learn from others to get a better idea of what I want to do once I enter the medical track.”
One of his assignments in Ethiopia is to survey sex workers about their lives and ways their lives could be improved, said Kathryn Whetten, an associate professor at the Sanford Institute, who went and observed Shungu on site. There was initial resistance about having a man conduct the survey, but he’s getting results, she said.
“I saw he had this incredible relationship with these women,” Whetten said. “They trusted him. His respect for them is very different than what they expected and probably very different from what they’ve experienced from other men. I think they’d tell Nick more than about anyone.”
Shungu said the experience has taught him practical skills -- and much more.
“My take-away lesson is that research should always be about the subjects; the researcher is simply a microphone. Before I initiated my research with commercial sex workers, I spent a month visiting their homes, introducing myself, letting them become comfortable with me, and more importantly laughing and building friendships. Not only did this approach gain their trust in me, but it made my diligence in the research that much stronger because I now have a desire to do everything I can for people that I consider good friends.”
At Duke, Shungu said he learned to integrate research and service. His biology professor Sherryl Broverman and her class on “AIDS and Emerging Diseases” was a huge inspiration, he said. “We learned invaluable lessons about the connection between socioeconomics and disease, and conducted research on what methods and interventions had been successful.” The class also produced a manual addressing gender-related issues for university students in Nairobi.
Shungu's medical specialty is at this point undecided, but he is committed to fighting for issues of social justice and equality and feels well-prepared for the future.
“I have developed a self-confidence that stems from having to engage in projects, establish networks, enter communities and interface with different people with little outside facilitation,” he said. “My patience and flexibility have been constantly tested and bolstered. One day I might meet with a group of commercial sex workers who have barely any educational experience, and the next I might find myself in a government office discussing policy issues, and I now feel fully comfortable entering into either situation.”