Sam O’Keefe’s Fulbright ETA Adventure in Cambodia on Global Public Health

May 23, 2024
Sam, Fulbright ETA Awardee, stands with group of Malagasy students, all wearing the same shirt reading "Projet Jeune Leader," for a group photo.
Sam with his colleagues from Projet Jeune Leader in Antsirabe, Madagascar, during a team retreat when they reflected on and presented their mid-year progress and strategized for upcoming projects.

The Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Programs place recent college graduates and young professionals from the U.S. in classrooms abroad for up to one year to assist local English teachers. ETAs help teach English while serving as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. The age and academic level of the students vary by country, ranging from kindergarten to university level. Applicants for English Teaching Assistant Programs can apply to only one country. Applicants must be U.S. citizens at the time of application.

Sam O’Keefe is a global health professional, researcher, and Fulbright ETA alumnus with extensive professional experience across a wealth of cultural and geographic contexts, from Haiti to Cambodia and Madagascar to the Netherlands, where he is currently an MSc candidate in medical anthropology. We spoke with Sam about his impressive and varied experiences, how they influenced his career trajectory and future plans, and his advice for aspiring fellowship applicants.

Tell us about your background and professional journey. What led you to pursue a BA in international studies and French and Francophone studies?

I earned my undergraduate degree at Vassar College, which is a liberal arts school that highly values interdisciplinarity. Taking courses in political science, geography, and anthropology in my freshman and sophomore years awakened my interest in global issues and development, which was latent because of the influence of my late aunt, who was an intrepid human rights worker in places like Cambodia and Somaliland. 

I had also taken French since middle school and enjoyed it, and when arriving at Vassar, I realized I had a strong level. Taking courses in global health and development and learning more about the Francophone world showed me how French language skills and knowledge of the Francophone, or French speaking, world complemented my interests in international development and critical development studies. My interests in international studies and French/Francophone studies reinforced each other and led me to major in them.

Tell us about your work in Haiti through the Vassar Haiti Project.

Vassar Haiti Project, which is now The Haiti Project, is a largely student-run, 501c(3) nonprofit that was started by Lila and Andrew Meade, who both work at Vassar College and grew to know and love Haiti through living there during their childhoods. The organization supports Haitian artists and artisans by buying and selling their artwork and using these and other funds to support sustainable development projects with a partner village in northwest Haiti, which include operations of a primary school, a health clinic, and a solar-powered lab, plus reforestation and water purification initiatives. A major component of the project’s mission is to engage college students at Vassar in experiential training in global citizenship—students volunteer for the project and become leaders of on-campus committees devoted to the organization’s various projects, gaining an invaluable array of skills. I started by becoming a member of the Education Committee and was accepted for the trip to Haiti my freshman year, in which I represented the Education project and traveled to the partner village. I led meetings with the principal, teachers, and other representatives to discuss progress and challenges. 

Throughout the rest of my time at Vassar, I moved into other leadership roles related to guiding and recruiting new student members. I also created a new position after seeing the need for a Student Mentor for future attendees of the annual trip to Haiti. It was so gratifying to be able to work for the project as an Executive Assistant just after graduating, during which I combined my knowledge and experiences through co-developing a new Alumni Leadership Board to create a more sustainable infrastructure to support the continuous engagement of alumni in the project. I’m excited also to be involved soon in a pilot program of the Alumni Board that pairs alumni with current students involved in the project to provide mentoring support for young, passionate student leaders.

After graduating from Vassar College, what led you to apply for the Fulbright ETA in Cambodia?

I had a long-time interest in Cambodia because my late aunt worked there in journalism and human rights and shared so many fascinating stories about the country’s history and culture. During my undergraduate studies, I was lucky to be accepted to a Junior Resident Fellowship in Cambodia hosted by the Center for Khmer Studies. This was a fast-paced, immersive research fellowship that served as a gateway to Cambodia for me, allowing me to conduct social science research on Buddhism and mental health and learn a lot about the country through conversations with monks, NGO workers, and youth. 

After completing the fellowship, I was eager to return to the country to continue studying the Khmer language and learn more about the role of education and youth development in the country’s reconstruction after years of genocide and civil war. The Fulbright ETA, which was a new program, appealed to those interests by offering more hands-on public sector experience in a developing country. This role also combined my interests and skills in language teaching and pedagogy, which I honed with my education work in Haiti and by teaching French during college.

A school posterboard with pieces of paper attached with writing in both English and Khmer.
Display of posters prepared by students at the beginning of Sam’s teaching, whom Sam asked to prepare a written or visual product to present their school’s cultural values and rules.

How did COVID and remote work affect your Fulbright ETA experience in Cambodia?

I did most of my teaching online due to COVID-19 restrictions in Cambodia, which were imposed after I arrived. Luckily, I was still able to fulfill other goals I had for the fellowship. I took some Khmer language classes online, and I also volunteered and interned. I was an SAT tutor for a program called She Can and mentored two young Cambodian women applying for a scholarship to attend university in the U.S. There was also an NGO I interned in that was involved in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis called KHANA Cambodia. This was a group I had connected with previously through my research fellowship, and I reconnected with them to build my skills in research, communications, and advocacy in public health, specifically sexual and reproductive health and rights. I also wanted to gain more of a sense of how global health and development agendas are translated into local contexts by local NGOs seeking to empower communities most affected by the issues at hand. With KHANA, I helped write grant applications, provided copy-editing and strategic input on donor reports and other funding applications, and also led the development of a quantitative needs assessment for HIV/AIDS-affected communities during the COVID-19 restrictions. 

Following your experience in Cambodia, you worked in Madagascar at Projet Jeune Leader. Can you tell us about this experience?

Projet Jeune Leader (PJL) is a youth-led, Malagasy organization delivering high-quality, holistic, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) to young adolescents in public middle schools in Madagascar. It was a logical transition to move from my work in Cambodia to PJL, as it combined my interests and skills in pedagogy, global public health, French/Francophone studies, and research. I worked both remotely and in-country during my time there. 

When I joined the organization, they were at an exciting moment, as they were deepening their partnership with the Ministry of Education and strategizing ways to expand their programming in the country. I conducted a systems analysis report to analyze the barriers and facilitators of scaling up CSE in the country. I was also involved in communications and outreach to promote the organization’s learnings on CSE implementation in challenging contexts. The most fulfilling project I was involved in was a pilot teacher training program in which I developed a full curriculum in CSE to train an inaugural cohort of public school teachers in PJL’s CSE program, which they implemented in a rural region of the country. I also contributed to the design, implementation, and analysis of some interesting program evaluations and operational research of the organization. Overall, I loved working at the intersection of evaluation, learning, and program development and implementation, especially given how hands-on this work was.

You are now an MSc candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. How did you come to your interest in medical anthropology with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights?

My undergraduate studies provided me with rigorous training in the social sciences and showed me the need to bring critical perspectives to global health and development to contribute to decolonizing these fields and the ways global health work is carried out. My research in Cambodia was also formative in this regard, as it showed me the importance of cultural and historical competency in global health. I brought these interests into my professional teaching and program work in Cambodia and Madagascar. This work was much more focused on implementation and public health approaches, especially in Madagascar. I learned the ways that anthropological and sociological concepts and ideas, like trust, studying up, reflexivity, and epistemic justice, can be embedded in evaluation and program accountability measures. I also saw how powerful and integral youth-led programming and qualitative, participatory methods are for understanding local contexts and impacts and developing highly contextualized programs that meet the needs of local communities. 

These types of critical approaches are much needed in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), where topics like gender, sexuality, and family planning, all of which interest me, are imbued with various sociocultural and ideological meanings and require research to see how people understand these topics in a variety of contexts. This all informed my decision to get my master’s training in medical anthropology to develop my qualitative and social science research skills related to health and well-being, specifically gender norms, which I know will be relevant to my future career.

What do you hope to do next? How have your fellowship experiences impacted your career trajectory?

I ultimately plan to straddle the implementation and academic sides of global SRHR and work with country teams to develop research and evaluation projects that contribute to augmenting access to sexuality education and gender programming. While a PhD could be in my future, after finishing my master’s this year, I am eager to get back into the SRHR field and gain more work experience. I have regional interests in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Within this work, I also envision contributing to training and capacity-strengthening in the areas of participatory research and evaluations, sexuality education, and gender. With a special interest in youth issues and empowerment, I intend for this work to involve leveraging research and evaluation to navigate and align education and health policies and programs to promote more comprehensive and responsive systems for youth SRHR in the Global South.

Fellowships have played a huge role in my career trajectory. They are what made it possible for me to travel internationally and work in positions that otherwise wouldn’t have been financially feasible due to the lack of funding in public and civic sectors and local organizations. It was through these roles, including in France, Haiti, Cambodia, and Madagascar, that I learned more about the challenges and also possibilities of global health and development, and that has informed my academic and career plans moving forward.

Sam, wearing an orange shirt and a facemask, stands in front of a large glass office window giving the thumbs up.
Sam at the office of KHANA, a local NGO in Cambodia that serves communities affected by HIV/AIDS, where he served as an intern during his Fulbright ETA, helping the team with grant writing, copy-editing, and program evaluations.

Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring fellowship applicants or those interested in similar career goals?

For anyone seeking to apply for a fellowship, I think authenticity, confidence, and humility are the most important attributes to demonstrate in your application. I think these are qualities that most fellowship committees look for in applicants, as they demonstrate an applicant’s self-awareness, desire to grow and learn, and self-assuredness in their experiences, the value their previous endeavors have brought them (through successes and failures), and how they have informed the person’s goals and aspirations. 

There also are a lot of fellowships and opportunities out there. Even though they are competitive, and one may be inclined to apply to many to increase their chances, I recommend narrowing it down to only a few that really excite you; this will make for more passionate and authentic applications, as you’ll be more motivated for them, and that will show to committees. Also, never be daunted by the competition to apply. I was so doubtful I would get the Fulbright fellowship, and I did. Don’t forget as well to look out for fellowships and funding opportunities provided by or promoted by your college or university career development office, both when you are a student there and even after you have graduated. Some offer generous awards and information on super cool funding opportunities for students and alumni, as they do care about furthering your growth.

For those interested in getting into my field, or global health and development more broadly, I would recommend, if possible, trying to get hands-on experience with projects driven by those most engaged with the issues being tackled. This gave me a lot of empathy for the challenges of development on the ground and also built my communication skills, which have served me in my ethnographic fieldwork and professional work in multicultural and multilingual teams. 

Knowing a second language other than English has also opened doors for me, so I would recommend gaining competency in a language other than English if this is the case. Speaking French and also making an effort to learn the local language in the places where I have ended up has been essential for me in making connections and immersing myself in learning more about ways of life and cultural values that inform how work is done in other countries and communities. I also think research skills, including synthesis and navigating between different disciplines, are critical for this type of work, as public health and social science languages can be quite different, but joining them together and translating insights into policy requires interdisciplinary and creative thinking and communication.

I’m also always open to connecting with students and professionals alike who may share interests or want to get more advice or chat about global health, development, decolonial approaches, SRHR, youth engagement, and French/Francophone topics. Never hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn!

Interested in applying to the Fulbright ETA program? Check out the many resources available on ProFellow to guide you through your application!

A headshot photo of Sam O'Keefe standing in front of a cityscape with green space and skyrises in the background.Sam O’Keefe is an early-career professional in global sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). He has worked in language teaching, program planning, research, and evaluation in various contexts, including France, Cambodia, and Madagascar. With a particular interest in qualitative and participatory research and gender-related programming, he plans to work at the intersection of practice and research in global SRHR, leveraging youth-led research and evaluations to advance more responsive health and education policies and programming for youth. He earned his BA at Vassar College and is now a Master of Science candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Amsterdam.

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