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Delving into the Mind of Kenya

Katie Desautels sitting on grass with two zebras in the background
December 4, 2019

Psychology major researches mental health issues in Kenya.

Katie Desautels

Katie Desautels

In the photo on the left, Katie Desautels is captured mid-walk with a backdrop of vibrant green and a road resembling the yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz. On her feet are green high top Converse shoes. These are the shoes that continue to support her as she walks through the Kenyan streets. For the past four months, she’s walked these streets nearly every day.

Katie is a senior at UMD, majoring in psychology.  Katie has relocated to Kenya to do research for the fall semester of 2019, with the support of the Katherine E. Sullivan Scholarship. The Katherine E. Sullivan Scholarship grants students from University of Minnesota campuses the ability to gain experience and perspective through studying in a different country.

Most students who study abroad come back with lessons learned, new insights, and ideas of what they are going to do differently when they arrive home. Like those students, Katie went in not knowing what exactly to expect but knowing that she would get something from this experience. 

Before she left for Kenya, Katie said, “A lot of people generalize Africa, and that feels unfair.”  She decided to focus her research on examining the stigma, misconceptions, and barriers surrounding mental health in urban vs. rural Kenya. 

After she arrived in August 2019, she researched more about Kenya. Katie immersed herself into her new community. This gave her firsthand experience with the people of Kenya. She became passionate about the disparities she saw regarding access healthcare in rural areas. She was inspired to address the challenge even though she was in a different culture and country. “The systemic issues which cause global disparities have me angry. We’ve identified some of the perpetrators creating these disparities, and now I want to be part of a team that uses science-backed tactics to dismantle these failed programs and institutions. I want to build something better,” she said. 

Katie's study is part of the Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) which teaches Swahili. She has taken up learning the language of Kiswahili, which has helped her with her immersion into the community. "I feel like I've learned how to navigate and learn another culture without forcing my own culture on others," she says. "It's important for future study abroad students to experience without judgement, and examine the biases that form their worldview."

Katie isn't the only one that learned something from her presence in Kenya. She also taught her host-family about puppy chow and peanut butter on bananas.

It took awhile for the shock factor to fade, Katie says, “But now little things make me feel like I've made a home here. Now I know how much to pay for a matatu (minibus), where the nearest Naivas (supermarket) is, and how to make Kenyan tea. Besides the little things, I'll forever remember all the friends I've made. I'll always have a home in Kenya because so many people I love are here.

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This story was written by Rikkia Walker, a student majoring in journalism. Rikkia works in the University Marketing and Public Relations office at UMD.