Blog Spotlight: Sarah Nakasone

As we often learn during our Corvias Alumni Summit, members of our family are constantly doing inspiring and world-changing things that somehow we don’t know about. A few months ago, I saw a post from current scholar Sarah Nakasone that mentioned she was going to be spending the summer in Africa working first-hand in implementing HIV transmission prevention through a truly life-changing medical treatment. I’ll let her explain the rest, but I think that after reading – you’ll be impressed & inspired to invoke change in your own community.

For those who have not yet met you in person, please tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Sarah Nakasone and I’m a current junior at the University of Chicago where I study epidemiology and international power relationships in medical activism (think WHO, United Nations policy but with a lot bit of Ebola and HIV thrown in). My father is an army officer, though my best friend has since joined the USNA, making the Army-Navy football game a fractious time in my circle of family and friends. My family was at Fort Meade, Maryland (about an hour from DC) when I received the Corvias Scholarship though they have since moved to Virginia, so I consider Chicago home for now. Future plans change with alarming regularity, though I assume it will have something to do with HIV considering my recent work. Ideally, I’d like to complete a master’s program in epidemiology and then go on to medical school, the goal being to work in infectious disease with low-income communities here in the US.

Fun fact wise- after growing up as a military brat, I have a huge passion for travel and will have visited five different continents in the span of about a year this December. My friends joke that if they want to find me, it’s probably easier to just spin a globe and pick a spot randomly than anything else. I also bake anytime I get stressed, a hobby that has served me well when trying to build goodwill with new flat mates.

How did you become aware of the project or get in contact with the Gates Foundation? Where did you find your passion for helping those affected with HIV, and were you specifically looking for a project in this area?

I started working in HIV prevention my senior year of high school. I was part of a dedicated engineering program where all of us were required to complete a capstone project and my project focused on developing apps to help educate youth about HIV (Baltimore, where I was going to school, still has a large problem with HIV). Considering I was going to a Catholic school, it was seen as a little bit of a ‘risqué’ project (I remember the principal scolding me because the phrase ‘HIV and other STIs’ apparently made our very conservative nuns uncomfortable). I think that stigma was what made me initially interested in continuing prevention work- I wasn’t used to being told that I shouldn’t do something, and that resistance made me want to do it even more.

(This is, of course, a TERRIBLE reason for doing anything so don’t follow my example here.)

I continued doing HIV prevention work once I got to college, still running on this ‘how-dare-someone-tell-me-what-I-should-and -shouldn’t-be-doing streak’ and ended up on a project researching PrEP. PrEP is this new drug that, if taken once a day, can prevent an HIV negative person from getting infected (think of it a little like birth control for HIV!) The Southside of Chicago, where I live, has a huge problem with HIV infections. As it stands, one in three black gay or bisexual men are HIV positive and we fully expect within the next few decades, about half of them will have been infected with the virus.

It is probably the hardest work I have ever done. I remember days when I would come home in tears because guys in the study would confess to me how their friends were dying of AIDS or because every single person we tested that day would be positive for the virus. But it’s also what finally gave me a good reason for doing the work. I would talk to men who had been activists for decades and committed their lives to stopping those around them from getting infected. People who confessed to me how much their lives had changed because of PrEP- because they didn’t have to worry about getting infected. We were making a difference with our research, even if it was just in the tiniest of ways.

As part of my degree program, we are required to do internationally-focused work and I wanted to continue working with PrEP. In circumstances that probably sound better suited for a networking conference (I have a friend who fought Ebola with someone who was engaged to a guy, who worked with a woman who needed someone with my background), I basically fell into the project on which I currently work. My current boss, Dr. Maryam Shahmanesh at the University College London, was working on a district-wide evaluation of DREAMS and, given my background with PrEP, she invited me to join the team and help design parts of the evaluation that would try to see how we could best give PrEP to young women. There wasn’t any formal application here, I just got very lucky that I had done similar work in the US and knew some well-connected people.

To back up a little bit, because I know that’s a lot of acronyms and introductions at once, DREAMS is a program that’s running in 10 sub-Saharan countries in Africa and is funded by the Gates Foundation and PEPFAR (a US program that tries to help fight AIDS abroad). DREAMS wants to make sure that young women grow up determined, resilient, empowered, AIDS-free, mentored, and safe so that we can cut rates of HIV by 40% in girls. I’ve been specifically working with the DREAMS program in uMkhanyakude District here in South Africa. The district is incredibly affected by HIV- 35% of the population has it- and young girls are at the most risk given that they generally don’t have the power to ask their partners to use condoms and get involved with much older men (‘sugar daddies’) just so they can make a little money for school or food or shopping. We think that PrEP can be a real help here because they would be able to take it without their partners knowing, but the South African government is still trying to plan how to get it to young women. My job has been to research how best we could get PrEP to young women (e.g. who should give it out, what sort of community education should we do, how should we market it, etc.)

It’s a different sort of life, being here. I live in a guest house with other researchers so often we will stay at the office for 10ish hours a day, only to go home and debate our research over shared meals and wine (good wine is about 40 rand a bottle, or $3.50) Most of us were born somewhere else and have no family here, so we become each other’s family. In my three months here, I’ve lived with a French nanotechnologist, a Malawian Ph. D student, a bunch of Brits, an Australian doctor, and a whole mess of South Africans. It made 4th of July an incredibly interesting affair because we had a multi-cultural bunch of us sharing my home-made apple pie with no one but me being quite sure as to why we had to celebrate anything.

What was the biggest thing you learned about the population you were working with that surprised you?

I think what surprised me most about living and working here is how often HIV does not rank as the primary concern for so many people. Many of the people in my generation lost parents to the disease and many of them are likely to be infected by it one day but it isn’t necessarily the thing about which they worry the most. 80% of the people here are on government assistance because they can’t find work, for example. It’s really hard to think about a disease that may affect you someday in the future if you’re starving today. It’s one of the many factors that will make ending AIDS here extremely difficult.

What did you learn about yourself during this experience both professionally and personally?

I loved my work this summer and I count myself as so, incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity. I have been surrounded by amazing people and have had the chance to grow both as a person and researcher here. I do not take that for granted. But I also realize that this is probably not the area of the world in which I want to work. AIDS in Africa gets a lot of attention (as it should) but we have a huge problem with AIDS in America as well- we just don’t have the problem in groups that attract a lot of interest and funding. It’s easy to spin stories about young women who don’t have the ability to negotiate for condoms and are thus at risk for HIV. It’s less easy to talk about injection drug users or gay black men or transgender women.

Something that was mentioned a lot during our Corvias Alumni Summit this year was the idea of hope. Knowing that our world is in desperate need of hope right now – what kind of hope do you now have after finishing this project for this population? Can that hope be transferred on a global scale?

Hope has been something I’ve thought a lot about here as well. There are so many days when you get caught up in these statistics about how many people who are infected and the numbers don’t seem to be getting better or they’re not getting better fast enough, no matter how hard we try. Somedays it feels a lot like lobbing water balloons at a forest fire. But then you talk to nurses here who remember what things were like before there were drugs to treat HIV and how their patients would die alone. How all day they would listen to the cries of people they could not save.

And we are so far past that. HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore and people here largely have access to the drugs they need to treat it. What seems like baby steps in the moment become immense progress in the end when you have the opportunity to look back.

I think that’s what gives me hope, both here and in HIV work in general. You have so many people who are committed to making this incremental progress, even when it doesn’t look like progress at all. I keep this quote anyplace I work so that I remember it:

“When we study the biographies of our heroes, we find that most of their time was spent in quiet preparation doing tiny, decent things, until one historic moment catapults them to center stage and causes them to tilt empires.”

            I am surrounded by people every day trying to do tiny, decent things. And that gives me a lot of hope- both for here and for our world.

Sarah Blog 1Sarah Blog 2Sarah Blog 4Sarah Blog 5Sarah Blog 3

Interview & Pictures: Sarah Nakasone
Questions provided by: Samantha Seifert

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What Can The Corvias Network Do For You?

There are now 131 Corvias Scholars.  Some of us are currently in school, winding down the spring semester.  The other 70 or so of us are making our way through graduate programs, forging careers, growing families, and living as adults day-to-day.  There are now ten years of experience within the alumni family, ten rings in the tree, spanning all walks of life, all manners of studies and expertise.  All this potential at our fingertips.  But how do we do anything with it?

I estimate that I’ve met and spent time with about 50 alumni, to varying degrees of intimacy.  I have known some of you since elementary school — this is common within the Corvias Foundation, there are only so many schools at each base.  Other alumni know each other through siblings, through babysitting, or grade school soccer programs.  But many of us have yet to meet.

I have gotten to know most of you over the years at Alumni Summits.  At these last two summits, I have felt the connective tissue between scholars solidify.  I have heard such stories from you all: like one scholar who reached out for help with a book drive and received hundreds of books.  I have heard of scholars following job leads that came to them from the Corvias network, of them moving across the country and starting new lives.  I have spoken with business owners, doctors, scientists, and musicians — and while some may scoff that I could have done this anywhere, there’s nothing quite like the caliber of a Corvias scholarship recipient.  Recently, Melissa facilitated a connection between myself and a seasoned mentor in my own field, arts and entertainment.

I am truly excited about all of this because I think that something is happening.  I think that something really cool is starting.  We, the Corvias scholars, have evolved.  The Corvias Foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary.  The first scholars have entered a phase of their lives well beyond what a freshmen undergraduate is living through, and that distance between the first class and the most recent class will always be growing.  For every question you have, every problem you’ve gotten stuck on, there is now a professional to turn to.  After all this time, the Corvias network has matured and can now tend to itself.

Ask yourself:  Where do you want to be going in your life?  How can the Corvias network help you get there?  Even if it’s silly, even if it’s the longest shot of your life, is it worth asking for?  Probably.

Photo Highlights of the 2017 Alumni Summit

Photos by Shamera Robinson.  Descriptions by Katie Newton.

1-Erin, Katie N., Tom, Adrianna, Megan S. , Marlena, Paul, Anthony, Katie S., Cody, Melissa, Josh, Mecia, Karl 2- Maria, Kathryn , Shamera, Alexis, Kinza, Megan H., Ashley, Samantha S., Cristi, Kaylan, Kris, Yeralis, Tonia 3- Whitney, Brittany, Samantha B., Kaitlynn, Asia, Brandi, Doug, Carolyn, Trey

Sunday, July 9, 2017:

Our group gathered at the Bradley Airport and traveled by bus to the Guest House Retreat and Conference Center in Chester, Connecticut.  The Guest House had all the charms of a New England country inn and was very welcoming to our group.  The evening was spent re-connecting with friends and getting to know our newest alumni.  Several people also spent time personalizing their validation bags– a place to leave each other notes of encouragement, friendship, thanks, etc.

Monday, July 10, 2017:

For a few of us the day began bright an early with Yoga lead by Kris.  Our first summit session was “Telling Your Story”, lead by Dawn Fraser.  Dawn got us loosened up passing Zap!’s  and Woah!’s around a circle.

Samantha B, Kathryn, Whitney, Kris, Yeralis, and Megan S.

We then discussed the elements of a story and broke into pairs to practice telling a 4-minute story.  We had more than enough volunteers when Dawn asked people to share their story with the larger group.

Shamera and Carolyn

Shamera

Brandi

Dawn Fraser

Trey and Dawn Fraser

In the afternoon Janet Colantuono, Corvias COO and champion of healthy work-places, gave a talk on Work-Life Balance.  Advice on loving the body you have, staying hydrated, and the real challenge of achieving work-life balance were shared.

Samantha S., Janet Colantuono, and Paul

Anthony

Kinza

Tonia, Adrianna, and Samantha B.

Kathryn, Trey, and Brandi

Tom

Whitney’s Dog

The group then hiked to a nearby lake to enjoy some sunshine and a swim.

1- Marlena, Katilynn, Kathryn, Karl, Paul, Tom, Anthony 2- Shamera, Brittany, Megan, Samantha, Katie S., Whitney, Mecia, Marcus, Trey 3- Yeralis, Kris, Christi, Tonia, Kaylan, Maria, Asia

Marcus

Tonia

Marlena

Kris

Mecia

Katie S.

Megan H.

Cristi

Samantha S., Brittany, and Ashley

In the evening we gathered around a bonfire.  The fire was large and warm and had space around it for everybody.  However, as the evening progressed we moved our circle to one side of the fire, and we took turns sharing the stories we had developed this in the morning session.  We shared difficult life lessons, stories of loss, and stories of personal success.  We learned not only about each others’ experiences but also about how each person views and describes their own experience.

Cody, Cristi, and Melissa

Alexis

Kathryn and Yeralis

Josh

Mecia and Asia

Megan S.

Kaylan and Kris

Whitney

Jessica, Maria, and Whitney’s dog

Paul

Kaitlynn and Adrianna

Doug

Katie N.

Carolyn

Samantha B., Samantha S., Ashley, and Brittany

Tuesday, July 11, 2017:

The second full day of the Summit began with rise and shine yoga for a few early birds.  After breakfast, the first Corvias Connects session convened.  In a collective conversation alumni shared their stories of personal and professional connections made through the Corvias Foundation.  We were reminded of the power of our network, especially when we look for ways to give to others and when we ask for help for ourselves.

Samantha B.

Alexis, Whitney, Doug, Anthony, and Ashley

The next session was discussion on practical finance with guest financial planners Chris Bartlett, Ed Pieroni, and Dave Sweeney.  Dealing with debt, preparing for retirement, and understanding taxes were popular topics of discussion.  With only an hour and a half to scratch the surface of these topics, our guests kindly agreed to answer additional individual questions following the discussion.

Kathryn, Katie N., Asia, Mecia

Megan H.

Marcus

The goal of the second Corvias Connects session was to foster connections with alumni in the same geographic regions.  We broke in to smaller groups based on current location (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and West/Southwest).  Each group was prompted to discuss ways they could support each other personally, professionally, and philanthropically.

To find out who is in your region, check out the file on our facebook page.

With much of the day spent listening and learning from others, we took a different direction for the next session.  During the self-love session, we turned inward.  Kris led us through a guided meditation.  Then we identified the successes and potential we have as individuals by completing the phrase “I am . . . “.  We filled sheets of paper with words of what we are and what we want to be.  Putting it all in the present tense was a reminder to find and nurture the good things inside of us.

Kinza

Karl

Katie N., Tom, Brandi

Mecia

Marcus

For the last session of the day, it was time for some #CorviasGivesBack.  This year’s on-sight service project was done in partnership with Together We Rise, a national organization that provides “sweet cases” and bicycles to foster children.  Working together, we decorated and filled about 15 sweet cases and assembled about 10 bicycles.

Brittany

Megan H.

1-Ashley, Samantha S., Alexis, Tonia, Kris, Megan 2- Maria, Kinza, Marlena, Brittany, Mecia, Carolyn

Adrianna and Kaitlynn

Yeralis and Katie S.

Kaitlynn

Katie N.

Cristi, Yeralis, and Katie S.

Whitney and Asia

1- Doug, Anthony, Paul, Karl, Josh 2- Kaitlynn, Asia, Kaylan, Megan, Whitney, Marcus, Katie N. 3- Brandi, Katie S., Cristi, Yeralis

Our celebratory dinner was from the Taco Pacifico Food Truck.  Options on tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos, and churros.

The rest of the evening was pretty quiet.  Per tradition, we found a puzzle.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017:

The day began with a restorative yoga practice led by Kris.  Following breakfast and check out, we came together for our closing session.  For our last opportunity to form connections in person this year, we went literal.  We attempted what might possibly be the world’s largest human knot.  All 34 alumni present formed a circle and joined hands with two people across the way.  My arm ended up squished through the middle of the circle and after 5 minutes was falling asleep.  It is very hard to make progress when nobody can move so we decided to break into two smaller circles.  Twenty-five minutes later, both knots were unraveled, and it was time to say our good-byes.

Doug, Anthony, Katie N., and Marcus

Adrianna, Ashley, and Samantha S.

Samantha B. and Paul

Yeralis

 

Anthony

Trey

Marcus and Karl

This year’s unofficial theme was “Connecting in Connecticut”.  The Summit planners did our best to make sure each session and activity facilitated forming genuine connections.  Howerver, it was our alumni that made the week a success.  Everybody came with an open heart and an open mind and was willing to share of themselves.  In return, each left with the friendships, a greater network, and the motivation to keep reaching higher.


A special thank you to Shamera for documenting our time together so thoughtfully:

Shamera

Shamera


Thank you to all involved with planning the Summit:

Corvias Foundation- Maria, Melissa, Erin, and Jennifer

Alumni- Cristi, Tonia, Kris, Kaylan, Samantha S., Anthony, Mecia, Brandi, Shamera, and Katie N.


Thank you to our many guest speakers:

Dawn, Janet, Ed, Chris, and Dave

Your contributions made our Summit powerful and educational.  Thank you for your generosity of time, knowledge, and spirit.