"Class of 2020" COVID-19 Ends Uganda Internship: Enhances Desire to Fight Future Pandemics

by Amber Friedrichsen

Hannah Heit was disappointed when her internship in Uganda ended abruptly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Heit, a junior in animal science, had traveled the rugged African roads to the Iowa State University Uganda Program (ISU-UP) campus in the Kamuli District in Uganda, where she was studying and volunteering on a semester-long internship.

“I was heartbroken,” Heit said. “There were still many things I wanted to accomplish and experience in Uganda, but unfortunately my trip was cut short.”

Even as Iowa State students in European countries were ordered to return home, Heit felt safe. At the time there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in Uganda.

During the week of spring break, Heit had taken time from her internship to go on a safari and that’s when she learned that the United States was no longer accepting flights from Europe. After learning this she had to quickly get ready to leave Uganda.

“By the next day I received news that I would be leaving Uganda by the end of the week,” Heit said. “The following day I found out I would be leaving Uganda in two days. I only had time to pack my bags and say goodbye to my closest coworkers.”

At the started her internship in January, Heit worked with fellow Iowa State students as well as community members to improve the gardens, which are a source of food in the Uganda community.

“We did service learning together in Uganda,” Heit said. “We helped mulch a banana plantation, planted acacia trees and papaya trees, and weeded a sweet potato field.”

During the semester, she worked with local farmers to help them improve agricultural practices. Heit also worked in local schools to motivate students to think about their academic and career potential.

“The career talks are crucial for inspiring the youth to believe in themselves and work to obtain their goals,” Heit said. "I believe in their future and encouraged them to believe in themselves too.”

In addition to influencing the people from the Kamuli District, Heit also focused on expanding her research on zoonotic diseases and their effect on public health.

“My main project is educating community members about sanitation and preventing contraction of zoonotic pathogens,” Heit said. “The methods I used for community-wide education included creating posters and pamphlets to post in public areas and hand out at gatherings and program trainings.”

Heit learned that local farmers house chickens in the family kitchen overnight, which she said is a dangerous practice because it allows cooking utensils to be exposed to zoonotic diseases such as Campylobacter, Escherichia coli and Salmonella.

Even though she can no longer work directly with local community members, Heit continues to work on educational materials and research.

“My service learning for the remainder of the semester will be done from home,” Heit said. “I am in the process of creating materials for a sanitation education class for the primary schools and I am also creating visuals for the schools to hang up about disease transmission and proper hand washing.”

Even though Heit is disappointed about ending her study abroad internship, her experience has reinforced her career goals.

“Spending this semester in Uganda and being able to watch this situation evolve has made me even more passionate about pursuing a career where I can play a key role in mitigating the spread of future emerging zoonotic diseases so we can hopefully prevent another pandemic like COVID-19,” Heit said.

April 9, 2020