Volunteer Spotlight: Katie Ferman

Katie in India during her thesis research trip

Katie Ferman is a sophisticated young woman, only two years out of college and already an experienced world traveler and citizen lobbyist.

When she arrived at The Ohio State University (OSU) as a freshman in 2009, however, Katie hadn’t yet set foot outside the United States. She quickly came to believe that studying abroad would complement her dual major in international affairs and environmental policy and management—“the most social of the environmental sciences”—and that a trip to India with the campus Global Health Initiative (GHI) would be a perfect fit.

Her time in India was eye opening—“a kind of immersive experience that allowed [her] to see the way that healthcare is delivered, and to observe the way that people access healthcare, depending on their resources.” The disparity in healthcare coverage that she witnessed was upsetting, but enlightening, and fueled her ambition toward working on development projects overseas.

Returning from such a life-changing experience, Katie wanted to find a way to make similar trips available to even more OSU students. When Katie first joined, GHI was only running one international volunteering opportunity every two years. Thanks to improvements made to the program while Katie was head of GHI’s international volunteering branch, many more students have the opportunity to travel abroad and work on meaningful health projects because there are now multiple trips each year.

And Katie’s own experience traveling with GHI didn’t stop after that first trip to India. During her junior year, she led a GHI trip to Guatemala. This trip, held in partnership with the organization Peacework, led a group of students to help community members construct clean cookstoves, which reduce smoke inhalation and prevent small children from falling into open cooking fires.

While Katie notes that Peacework was incredibly helpful in providing guidance, this trip, just like all of GHI’s international trips, was organized entirely by students. Each aspect—from the recruitment to the cultural training sessions to the fundraising—was student led.

During her tenure with the club, Katie worked with Peacework and GHI leadership to envision a network of volunteering sites in South and Central America, Africa, and Asia; so far, these partnerships have allowed OSU students to work with local organizations in India, Guatemala, Malawi, and Peru.

Making the Population Connection

Katie describes the partnership between GHI and Population Connection as an “intuitive fit.”

Following the success of many Columbus-based joint outreach efforts, Population Connection recruited ten GHI members, including Katie, to travel to D.C. to attend our annual Capitol Hill Days event in 2011. By the time her senior year rolled around, Katie was serving as the President of GHI and we had to place OSU applicants on a waiting list because so much interest had been generated in the CHD program during the previous two years.

In order to help satisfy this student interest in first-time lobbying, she organized a group of OSU students to attend in-district lobby visits with the offices of Sen. Rob Portman and Rep. Steve Stivers in the winter of 2012, with organizational help from the Population Connection field team. Both of these members of Congress are terrible on our issue, but it’s still useful to let them know that their constituents are paying attention to their shameful voting records on family planning and reproductive health.

Living Abroad

When she was a senior, Katie returned to India to conduct research for her honors thesis project, a case study of a rural women’s protest movement in Kerala that started in 1999 and lasted most of the following decade. With the guidance of her thesis advisor, whom Katie describes as “an incredible woman, and an absolute visionary in her approach to teaching environmental issues from a feminist perspective,” Katie conducted research about the movement to protest the privatization of local water by an international corporation.

And then, ten days after she graduated from OSU, Katie moved to Guatemala, where she lived and worked for a year and a half in a remote village in the Mayan highlands. For the first three months she was there, she helped a D.C.-based organization called Pueblo a Pueblo to implement school sanitation programs that increase hand washing and reduce student illness and absenteeism. She was also involved with a maternal and child health program through Pueblo a Pueblo that includes training women in the community to be family planning champions (Guatemala has the highest fertility rate in the Western Hemisphere and a very low rate of contraceptive use). Katie says that the projects she worked on in Guatemala were “real world applications of the issues she had advocated about with Population Connection.”

A month before her job at Pueblo a Pueblo was set to end, Katie took on a new side project. Seeing the various challenges facing girls and women in the area where she lived—high rates of domestic violence and unintended pregnancy plague this part of Guatemala—Katie decided she wanted to develop a culturally sensitive girls education curriculum that focused not only on sexual and reproductive health, but also on self-esteem. That curriculum is still being used by Pueblo a Pueblo to this day.

Looking Forward

Now that she’s back in Cleveland, Katie is planning for her future by interning two days at week at the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, while also studying for the GRE. Her ultimate goal is to become a Foreign Service officer, and to that end, she is refreshing her knowledge of Hindi while also learning Arabic.

Katie is early in her career and has already done so much. We look forward to following her journey, and are grateful for her contributions to Population Connection and to the improved health of women and girls around the world.

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