As a 21-year-old junior in college, I thought my career path was fairly clear. A love for design led me to major in architecture, and I spent the summer of 2003 interning with a design firm in New York City. Yet it was the two weeks I took off from work that sparked a major career shift and transitioned me to a path of global service.
That summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Uganda to witness the launch of the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Hundreds of people lined the streets, eagerly awaiting life saving drugs to stall the progression of HIV or prevent the virus all together. These drugs had been available in the United States for years, yet had remained out of reach for people in developing countries. Witnessing such stark contrasts in health equity -- that the place in which you are born and obstacles such as cost and availability can trump your human right to health -- was a powerful and frustrating experience.
I had always been interested and engaged in global health issues, but I returned home with a renewed desire to get actively involved. I switched majors, took a job with the Red Cross Children's Hospital in South Africa post-graduation, and interned with UNICEF in Botswana. In 2008, I found myself connected with a group of five idealistic twenty-somethings through the AIDS 2031 Young Leaders Summit hosted by Google and UNAIDS.
Randomly placed at a table together, three of my co-founders worked to answer the challenge posed to the audience: how to engage young people in global health? Our idea for a solution evolved into the founding of Global Health Corps (GHC), an organization we envisioned as a launching pad and training ground for the next generation of global health leaders working to fight health inequity.
In 2009, GHC was born -- with 22 fellows placed in yearlong positions within eight partner organizations in four countries in East Africa, Southern Africa and the United States. Five years later, our community of fellows and alums is now 322 humans strong, bound by the unwavering belief that health is a global human right.
This year, we'll welcome our sixth class of fellows. Almost 5,000 individuals applied for 128 positions in Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and the United States -- a dramatic increase from the 1,305 people who applied for our 22 inaugural fellowship positions. Our generation is often accused of apathy or self-absorption, but GHC is evidence to the contrary. We have seen interest in our work -- and global service work more broadly -- grow exponentially. We're coming of age in a more global world than ever.
GHC fellows don't come from cookie cutter molds. Rather, these outstanding young leaders represent dozens of countries, career fields and passions, yet are deeply connected through their drive to spend their lives learning, engaging and supporting improved health equity around the world. We aren't only recruiting doctors or nurses; our cohort consists of architects, economists, counselors, and women's rights activists, to name a few.
We're proud that our community includes a Malawian soccer star who is working to improve his country's procurement of drugs and medical supplies, a former employee from The Gap who went from stocking jeans to stocking Tanzanian clinics with anti-retroviral drugs, and a budding playwright who has used her artistic background to support the sexual and reproductive health of Ugandan women. To support the realization of health equity, we believe a diverse, unique set of skills and backgrounds are just as essential as a medical degree.
I'm continually inspired by the energy and ambition our fellows embody in their commitment to social change, and we know the end of the fellowship year is also the beginning of long career in social good. We share the Franklin Project's vision in our efforts to foster a lifelong commitment to global service among fellows. I look forward to this week's Aspen Institute Franklin Project Summit at Gettysburg, where I'll be participating on a June 4th panel focused on national service and the American character. I'll be discussing how service has impacted my personal understanding of citizenship and the ways that programs like Global Health Corps can bring together young people with otherwise diverse and disconnected experiences to make an impact on our world. Building a collective community grounded in curiosity about challenges, innovative solutions, and a commitment to taking action is the first step in making a lasting difference.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the latter's Summit At Gettysburg (June 4-6, 2014, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania). The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, read here. To learn more about The Franklin Project, read here.