January 09, 2020
Houston native Carlie Sulpizio ’13 will happily admit that “as a freshman walking onto the Southwestern campus, I would not have pictured what ended up happening [given] where I currently am and the experiences I’ve had.” In college, a newfound academic passion led her to declare an unplanned major. After graduation, she overcame challenges beyond the norm as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Today, she works in the ever-changing field of global health.
Regardless of the many surprising twists and turns she has encountered along the way, Sulpizio says, “I’m very grateful for all of it, and I would not have changed my experience for anything—for the good, the bad, [or] any of it.”
The surprising joy of the Southwestern Experience
Joining Greek life was not something Sulpizio had planned before college, but some of her favorite Southwestern moments were the giggle-inducing escapades she shared with fellow members of Zeta Tau Alpha. During her first year on campus, she lived on the third floor of Brown–Cody, which was an all-female residence hall at the time. She and her hallmates bonded so much that they ended up pledging the sorority together. “I don’t think floors two and one really liked the girls on BC3,” she laughs. “We were very, very loud. But I had a great time, and I love all those women.” That camaraderie remains strong even today, with Sulpizio and her Zeta sisters still visiting one another and holding reunions. “This whole sisterhood was hands down the best experience of my college career,” she reflects. “I absolutely loved it. [You] couldn’t replicate it.”
Becoming an avid participant in Greek life wasn’t the only surprise of Sulpizio’s university career; her academic plans changed as well. Having been involved in performance and especially the technical side of stage productions since elementary school, Sulpizio’s initial intention was to pursue a major in theater. She focused on stage management under the mentorship of John Ore, working as the professor’s technical assistant in the Alma Thomas Theater. Ore also served as Sulpizio’s academic advisor. “He’s just absolutely amazing,” the Southwestern alum recalls. “He’s just a warm and loving individual, and he really cared about me and my education and what I was doing and where I was going. His door was always open if I was having an issue; if I just needed to talk, he was always there. He’s just a phenomenal person.”
Sulpizio “really, really enjoyed” working in theater, a field of study she “felt was important.” But during her first semester at the University, she also enrolled in an Introduction to Anthropology course, which led to a second class in the subject—and then another and another after that. As someone who “enjoys learning about other cultures and other people and how those systems function,” Sulpizio naturally gravitated toward the discipline. “And I like this idea of anthropologists going in and becoming part of other communities—not necessarily just sitting there and observing but truly getting a good story and learning about somebody else, their perspective, and their history,” she explains. She ultimately declared anthropology as her major and minored in theater.
“Something magical happens when you’re able to really connect with your peers and your professors. You engage [with] and learn from one another. You really can make a big difference. Southwestern is a pretty, pretty special place.”
For Sulpizio, perhaps the most significant facets of her Southwestern Experience were the University’s intimate size and the opportunities that such an educational environment affords. When people ask her, “What? Your school was how small?” she tells them that her largest class had 12 students while her smallest had only three. “Something magical happens when you’re able to really connect with your peers and your professors,” she shares. “You engage [with] and learn from one another. You really can make a big difference. Southwestern is a pretty, pretty special place.”
The desire to create change
If you’re a first-generation college student like Sulpizio, you might recognize the familiar scenario of a parent delaying or even avoiding priorities like healthcare because they worry about the medical bills or the consequences of missing a day of work. The SU grad heard that same refrain when she was 11 years old. “It was always a topic of conversation: my mother always urging [my father] to go to the doctor and him just saying, ‘I don’t have time; I have to work,’” she shares. Those words would ring in Sulpizio’s ears long after her father suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of only 50: she would pursue her studies at Southwestern not knowing exactly what she wanted to do for a living, but she did know that she wanted to help people and that somehow supporting access to healthcare would be an important part of her career.
Studying anthropology unexpectedly revealed the path Sulpizio would follow after graduation: joining the Peace Corps. “Dr. Melissa Johnson was a really big deal throughout college,” says the SU grad, who says the widely loved anthropology professor’s “observations about other communities and the importance of being an advocate” really resonated with her own passions. Sulpizio was also energized by an SU course on poverty, culture, and HIV, which provided her the opportunity to attend a lecture at the University of Texas at Austin delivered by renowned medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer; his topic that evening was healthcare as a human right. Together, the class and the lecture inspired something of an epiphany in the then-SU senior. “‘Oh, this is what I want to do! I don’t want to be a doctor; that’s helping one person. I want to be part of systematic change—a larger sustainable solution,’” she remembers thinking to herself. “So that was the big catalyst. I wanted to create change at the community level.”
But Sulpizio knew she wasn’t ready for graduate school just yet, nor did she want a nine-to-five office job. So at the beginning of her final year at Southwestern, she began working on her application to the Peace Corps. Guided by the staff at what is now the Center for Career & Professional Development, the college senior translated her experiences to a résumé, wrote and revised her personal statements, and engaged in a series of mock interviews to prepare for the long application process. “They were really helpful,” Sulpizio says. “The woman who did my mock interviews was phenomenal… . I don’t think I would have gotten in without the Career Center.”
By January or February of her last semester at SU, Sulpizio was undergoing security and health screenings. In July, she learned she would be assigned to rural, landlocked Burkina Faso, one of the most impoverished countries in West Africa. There, she would be one of approximately 155 Peace Corps volunteers. Her focus would be on community health development.
Anxieties and disappointments
In those days, volunteers didn’t get to choose where they lived or what their job would be, and Sulpizio admits that when she received her assignment, she had a few reservations. She recalls that her interviewers had kept mentioning her having taken French courses in high school and college, “but I kept telling them my French is horrible!” she laughs. She was also concerned about living in West Africa because she had learned from Johnson and her other anthropology professors the importance of integrating into the local culture and community, but part of that integration can be hampered just by one’s appearance. “I am very, very white, and I have bright red hair, so I was concerned about really becoming part of my community,” she shares candidly.
When she arrived for her in-country training, one of her fears was realized: when she took a French proficiency test, her results registered at the lowest level of the scale—“as if I’d never heard the language before!” she says, chuckling. And because the members of her specific community in Burkina Faso did not speak the two other national languages that the Peace Corps might have taught her, Sulpizio was given a stipend to pay someone in the village to help her learn the local dialect after she arrived on site, which posed the additional challenge of not being written. “That was an interesting first step,” she recollects. “The people at the health clinic all spoke French, the men sort of spoke the local language, but the women in the community spoke the true mother tongue. So trying to navigate three different languages in a new place and figure out priorities was pretty difficult at first!” During those first months, then, Sulpizio recalls that her entire goal for a single day might be to summon the courage to go to the market, interact with the shopkeepers with her limited ability to communicate, and purchase a tomato. Otherwise, much of her time was spent sitting, sweating, waiting, observing, reading—and, naturally, feeling frustrated.
The language barrier was just one substantial obstacle to integrating with the community. Her appearance, as she had anticipated, was another. “I lived in a very rural and animist community in the middle of nowhere,” she describes. “A lot of the small children had never seen anybody who looked like me, so a lot of them, based on their religion, assumed I was a spirit. It was a very interesting learning experience both for me and my community.”
But perhaps one of the greatest difficulties Sulpizio faced in terms of integrating with her community was that her home was physically separated from the maze of nine neighborhoods that comprised her community. Outside the maze was a road, a field, and the health clinic where she would work; her house lay beyond, segregating her from the daily life of the Burkinabé community. So even though her only assigned task for her first three months of service was, as she describes it, to “get to know your community, figure out what people want and need, and make connections,” achieving that objective was a major challenge. And because she had no cell-phone reception unless she bicycled six kilometers outside her community, contact with the outside world was even rarer.
Such isolation, in turn, meant that Sulpizio often worried about her own safety. In the daytime, she had to rely on the mediating presence of her male Peace Corps counterpart, who had been sent by the Burkinabé Ministry of Health, when interacting with strangers. At night, as a woman living alone in a field, adjacent to a community in which she observed rampant alcoholism as well as sexual harassment and assault, she often feared that her door might not be locked properly. Unfortunately, her anxiety was only multiplied one day in the health clinic when a man tried to attack her. Sulpizio remembers that her community “was up in arms” about the attempted assault and wanted to protect her, but the means to do so were lacking, and although several of her agency contacts were supportive, her requests for help ultimately went unheeded.
The experience was frightening and its aftermath both disappointing and disquieting, to say the least. Nevertheless, she says, “If I would have known these things going in, I don’t think that it would have deterred me from going, but it would have made me more hypervigilant.” She says that the chances of “something happening to you” are no different in any large city in the U.S., but when you’re in a remote area in a foreign country, “You have to learn the different rules. There’s a learning curve, which is scary and something you definitely need to consider.” To this day, when she talks to especially women who are considering applying for volunteer service abroad, she warns them to do their research on both their assigned country and their organization’s policies on supporting victims of harassment and assault because she often felt that her isolation was further exacerbated given that she had to advocate for her own security. “That is something I’d navigate every day,” she recalls.
Lessons learned and connections made
In addition to her harrowing experiences with severe isolation and physical danger, during her 2-1/2 years of service in Burkina Faso, Sulpizio would lose 65 pounds because of malnutrition, which, in turn, caused her to contract malaria because the preventative medications were not effective if not taken with sufficient food. Then, while recovering from the disease in a Peace Corps facility in the country’s capital, she was infected with a second mosquito-borne illness: yellow fever. “I thought I was going to die, I was so sick… . I basically hit all of the things,” she laughs.
Despite those rather dark days, Sulpizio did return to her community and successfully implemented two principle projects during her 2-1/2 years in her community. The first focused on food security and financial literacy, empowering women not only to cultivate soybeans and transform them into nutritious tofu, milk, yogurt, and enriched flour but also to sell those products within local neighborhoods to gain financial freedom. The second program promoted sanitation and hygiene by rewarding schools for such activities as teaching lessons on sexual and reproductive health, installing handwashing stations, and making soap. Sulpizio still takes satisfaction in having accomplished these important health interventions.
She also treasures her Peace Corps service because of the lifelong friendships she developed. “I made some amazing connections to people,” she shares. “I made some of my closest friends.” She says that she still builds relationships even with volunteers who served at different sites and from different generations. “It’s kind of crazy, when you really think about it: moving to the middle of nowhere for 2-1/2 years is not a normal thing to do,” she laughs, “so you find these other people and you really bond and resonate with them over a shared experience, even if our experiences were so drastically different from country to country.”
But she’ll also echo what so many of her fellow volunteers have expressed: “You think that at 22 years old, you’re going to go and make this huge difference in the world, but in fact, no. The Peace Corps … [is] a fantastic learning experience that you need money and people who are motivated to make impactful change. And you can’t just show up to a community, speak the language, integrate, and be a part of it; you need lots of resources to fix these issues.” So as she encountered at Southwestern, the Peace Corps, too, afforded lessons in defying expectations. “That, I think, was one of the interesting parts: I was not expecting to be as frustrated as I was and to see I am just one person in one community in one sector… . So sort of reassessing your expectations is a big part of Peace Corps.”
Becoming a global citizen
Sulpizio admits that her viewpoint might seem cynical, but, she adds knowingly, “if you talk to Peace Corps volunteers, we’re a very jaded bunch!”
And in the end, the lessons she learned and the benefits of her “eye-opening” and “life-changing” service in Burkina Faso have stayed with her during her post–Peace Corps career. “There’s definitely a lot of pros of my experience,” Sulpizio reflects. “The big one is really solidifying that I wanted to work in global health, that I wanted to go to graduate school, and that I do want to be a global citizen—to be a part of something positive … and something bigger. There is a lot of good that can be done.”
She knew that after earning a degree from Southwestern and completing her years in the Peace Corps, she had enough training and experience to break into the field of global health. However, she wanted to expand her skillset and explore whether she wanted to specialize in policymaking, research, or program management. So, having met a large number of Peace Corps volunteers in Burkina Faso who hailed from Washington state, Sulpizio applied and was admitted to an internationally recognized graduate program in public health at the University of Washington (UW), in Seattle. There, she earned her master’s degree as well as a certificate in women’s, adolescent, and children’s health.
“I had some really fantastic experiences,” she recounts. “I was able to work as a research assistant for one of the UW centers called I-TECH,” or the International Training and Education Center for Health. There, she engaged in HIV research and programming, focusing particularly on implementing and evaluating the efficacy of prevention and education initiatives in Namibia. One of her favorite projects, she remarks, “was assessing and rolling out a book that takes the scariness out of HIV. It doesn’t use words like HIV or AIDS or sick. It talks about the importance of adhering to your medication without all the scary jargon… . I worked on that, which was pretty phenomenal.”
To balance out the qualitative skills she honed as an SU anthropology major, Sulpizio sharpened her quantitative skills by transferring to the Cote d’Ivoire team in the I-TECH research center, where she worked on quality assurance, analyzing lab testing and certification protocols and making sure they were efficient. “I was also able to work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris on outbreak investigations,” she adds, “which was really interesting because with HIV, the work you’re doing is sort of slow-moving” because it focuses on program implementation, assessment, and improvement. In contrast, she says, when surveilling “outbreaks, you have to work and move in real time. I was able to work on the outbreak of plague in Madagascar, the outbreak of cholera in Yemen, and [zika-related] microcephaly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, so I had a ton of crazy, awesome experiences.”
After completing her master’s, Sulpizio considered offers from institutions and organizations across the world. She is grateful that her experiences at Southwestern, in the Peace Corps, and at UW allowed her to “be a little pickier” in “figuring out where [her] skillset most aligns.” Today, she is serving as a project manager for the Seattle Institute for Biomedical and Clinical Research, where she is overseeing a pilot program to improve prostate cancer screening of veterans. Ultimately, she sees herself expanding on the work she’s been studying and engaging in since her days at Southwestern: implementing health interventions, assuring the quality of healthcare, and advocating for the equality of healthcare access.
Sulpizio’s academic and career path may have had its mountains and valleys, but the SU alumna advises others to move forward always, even if life and profession entail curves and detours. “You don’t want to get rid of an opportunity before it’s even a true opportunity, so just apply, and don’t sell yourself short. Try, and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK, and if it does, that’s great, too.”