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Intertwining French and Public Health in Senegal

April 16, 2018

Portrait of Jane Leach.

Portrait of Jane Leach.
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

A trip to Senegal confirmed UMN junior Jane Leach’s hope to work in international health development. “I cannot say that I have ever felt this same passion to research, analyze, and implement as I did during my learning-abroad experience. Along with the amazing time for reflection that I had while abroad, it felt like I had found something I could dedicate my life to.”

Leach reflects on her recent learning-abroad experience, “I definitely had challenges there, but I think that’s what made it the best part for me, that I was being pushed out of my comfort zone.”


Leach spent fall 2017 immersed in Senegalese culture through a learning-abroad program that seemed almost designed with her interests in mind. She is pursuing a French major alongside a minor in public health, and jumped at the opportunity to gain real-world experience in health development in a French-speaking country. 

Leach has been interested in French since an early age, when she attended L'Étoile du Nord French Immersion School in St. Paul. In high school, she took Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) classes at the University of Minnesota and knew that she wanted to continue her French studies in college and beyond.

Another Language Barrier

Traveling to another country was an exciting prospect for Leach, whose only previous experience traveling outside the US was a trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

Leach spent seven weeks in the capital city of Dakar taking French classes and living with a host family. She then spent an additional six weeks completing an internship at a health clinic in Nioro Alassane Tall, a rural village of 27,000 people about 143 miles (230 kilometers) southeast of Dakar, Senegal’s capital.

Although many people speak French in Senegal, eighty percent of the population speaks Wolof. “I definitely had an experience of isolation that was challenging,” Leach explains “But [it] allowed me to better understand the lives of the people I was working with.” Although Leach couldn’t express everything she wanted to in Wolof, the repetition at the health clinic helped drill words into her head.

Despite the language barrier, Leach developed meaningful relationships with her host family and the people in Nioro, making her more engaged with them. “[It] showed me there are other ways of communication and having relationships with people besides language.” 

Everyday Life in Nioro

“My favorite part was definitely time in the village. They like to take things slow.” Leach embraced the laid-back culture of Nioro, starting with not setting an alarm clock. As her body adjusted to this change, she soon grew into a normal habit of waking up at eight in the morning. After drinking pre-sweetened and pre-creamed instant coffee and eating an entire baguette for breakfast, she headed to work at the health post—a clinic that provides basic health care and family planning in the rural areas.

At the health post, Leach worked with mothers and babies. She would record each baby’s weight, height, temperature, and do a malnutrition screening. If an infant was running a fever, Jane conducted a rapid malaria antigen screening by pricking the child’s finger for a blood antigen test and record the results. She also spent time shadowing the nurses’ consultations with the patients.

Leach finished her work at the health post by early afternoon, and headed home for lunch, which would either be maafe or ceeb u jën, both rice-based meals. She would spend the afternoon drinking tea with her host brother and his friends. 

Once the sun started to set and the temperature dipped below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Leach would take walks through the peanut fields that dominated the local landscape. She would end her day by watching television with the people of Nioro, who “love television [and] would pull out their TVs into the middle of the courtyard [every night].”

A New Perspective

Leach’s learning-abroad experience has led her to approach her studies differently than she had before traveling to Africa. “I was learning [French] from people who had been colonized by the French, and it’s not the same as taking a French literature class here [in Minnesota],” Leach says. “[The trip enriched] my French studies [by helping me] see these things from all these perspectives.”

Today, Leach seeks out opportunities to place what she is learning in a global context and connect it to things that she learned while abroad. She also hopes to integrate some aspects of the academic work she accomplished in Senegal—including her internship—in the honors thesis she will write next year.

Moving Forward

As the undergraduate finish line looms near, Leach’s journey into international health development and French is far from over. “I want to go to med school with the hopes of becoming a primary care physician,“ says Leach. 

“I’m really interested in public health as a field and not just the clinical aspects or the medicine side. [I want to engage] with all of that to build health systems that not [only] effectively help people in richer countries, but also [in] the world’s poorest.”


This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.