Campus News

Youth Ambassador Program: Community-led Research in Uganda

Bokie Muigai August 21, 2023
young person giving a presentation outside

The pandemic provided an opportunity for many people to develop new skills, change careers, or even go back to school. This was true for Heather Wipfli, PhD, and her USC GRIT Lab which carries out public health research and service activities in low- and middle-income countries. Since 2015, she had organized weeklong interactive summer camps for children in Uganda. The program featured fun and energetic soccer training provided by Ugandan coaches, alongside public health workshops led by GRIT Lab and Makerere University students. “The camps were a really powerful tool which provided great role modelling by the college students for the younger kids,” she expresses.

Youth Public Health Ambassadors present on recognizing the symptoms of Malaria. Photo courtesy USC GRIT Lab.

However, when social distancing measures took effect, the camps that brought together over 1,000 kids, were no longer permitted. “I worked with students in my lab to launch different types of programs to keep the youth engaged, because we could no longer host these large community events,” she explains. This resulted in the youth public health ambassador program in partnership with Children’s Chance International. The goal of the program was to deliver greater depth in public health education to a smaller targeted group of youth, while at the same time continuing to engage the wider community.“Through conversations with local partners, we worked with community organizations and leaders to select 30 youth from the Lira district to participate in a yearlong training and research immersion program,” reports Wipfli.

“The first virtual workshop introduced them to public health basics. “We covered infectious disease, cancer, and risky behaviors associated with tobacco-use and alcohol consumption. We taught them how to make reusable sanitary pads and set-up hand washing stations. We also gave them materials needed to go out into the community and teach others what they had learned,” she reveals.

USC GRIT Lab student hands out mosquito nets. Photo courtesy USC GRIT Lab.

The second workshop taught the ambassadors how to conduct a community health assessment. They learned how to assess health measures in their communities through observations and surveys and how to document their findings. Together with the workshop facilitators, they identified the topics they wanted to assess and developed data collection instruments. “We assigned them tablets and bicycles, and they went out into the community to collect data at 9 health facilities, 19 schools and 305 households. They assessed measures such as sources of water, indoor smoke from cooking fires, and the quality of latrines,” she states. At the same time, GRIT students in the U.S. were learning alongside the Ugandan youth. They supported the entire research process, including helping to develop the survey questions and submitting the protocols for ethical clearance in the US and Uganda.

During this time, a representative from the Peace Corps noticed the youth ambassadors working in the community and offered to partner with them to raise awareness about malaria prevention. Peace Corps has since donated thousands of mosquito nets which the youth ambassadors have distributed to community members along with malaria education.

Photo courtesy USC GRIT Lab.

Finally, the third workshop focused on data analysis and presentation. “Our GRIT Lab students examined the data collected in Uganda and presented it back to the team, to demonstrate what main messaging could be used when sharing their findings with the community,” she shares.

Following the workshop, the youth ambassadors worked to distribute the results to their communities and beyond. Notably, 4 youth ambassadors accompanied GRIT students to Kampala, where the ambassadors presented their research to various audiences. Their first stop was the Ugandan parliament, where they were given a special opportunity to explain their research to the national parliamentary health committee. Next, they visited and presented at the Ministry of Health, Makerere University School of Public Health, and lastly, they shared their findings at the American Embassy.

Earlier this year, four GRIT Lab students presented research posters in Washington DC at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health conference. One poster highlighted the impact of the Ugandan youth ambassador program based on continuous assessments conducted throughout the program, while another showcased the status of mental health of Ugandan children based on data collected by the ambassadors. 

Youth Public Health Ambassadors present on the dangers of not treating Malaria. Photo courtesy USC GRIT Lab.

The youth ambassador program has provided an opportunity for USC students and young people in Uganda to be involved in every step of the research process. When asked about her approach to activities conducted in her lab Wipfli responds, “I enjoy working with undergrads because they are brilliant, skilled, and committed —also they are here a little longer which allows them to form strong bonds with our community partners,” she indicates. Wipfli has created a vibrant program, that empowers young students to lead international research early in their higher education journey and provided them with tools and guidance along the way.