Like many of her peers, Fatoumata Sylla ‘18 has spent her time at Bryn Mawr focusing on women’s issues and has found one area about which she is particularly passionate. Majoring in religion at Haverford College, Fatoumata is on the premedical track and plans to be an Ob-Gyn.
Prior to beginning medical school, she will be traveling the world to learn about different healing modalities for maternal depression in marginalized communities as a Watson Fellow.
In Senegal, Germany, and South Africa, she will see how women use non-clinical healing methods, from art to religion, to navigate postpartum depression.
Each year, approximately 40 graduating seniors from liberal arts colleges throughout the United States receive this grant. The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is given to students of “unusual promise” who wish to travel the world for 12 months of independent international travel, shaped and driven by the passions of the individual fellow.
Fatoumata spent some time discussing her plans for the next year. We talked about traveling, empowerment, and learning to be fiercely independent.
Congratulations on receiving the Watson! Have you traveled before?
“A little bit! None of my family lives in the states. I’ve been to Togo, where I was born, a bunch of times, and Ghana and France just to visit family. But, for a year, no. And especially not by myself.”
Your proposed research sounds really fascinating, and focusing on marginalized communities is an important but difficult commitment to make. How do you plan to navigate researching undiagnosed and underdiagnosed populations?
“A lot of my project is going to depend on conversations, and how women themselves define that state. So it’s going to be up to the individual, up to whoever I meet.”
How did you decide on this research topic?
“Since freshman year, I’ve always been interested in maternal health. Freshman year, I did a fellowship at Bryn Mawr. For the Dalun fellowship, one of my three projects was organizing a prenatal workshop for women in Ghana. And then, the following year I did this internship at a hospital in Massachusetts. The goal was to provide doulas to low-income women who had screened for postpartum depression. That really spurred my interest in postpartum depression. And last year, I did some research at UPenn with a researcher who looks at transmission of trauma from African American women to their children. So it’s always been a thing I’ve been interested in. I want to be an Ob-Gyn, so women’s health really fascinates me.”
How did you pick these places and plan your itinerary?
“One: visas. I wanted to go to places where it would be pretty feasible for me to get a visa, since I don’t have an American passport. Two: I think being African, and being an African woman, it’s widely undiagnosed in this population. I just want to see how women deal with it, especially because there aren’t that many avenues for them to access healing.
"South Africa has a huge influx of other African immigrants and refugees. So I want to focus on refugee women there. And in Senegal, I’m going to go to villages, and focus on women in villages who don’t have that much contact with modern-day cities. I’ll be looking at economic inequality. Also in Germany, there’s a huge Syrian refugee population. So it’s centered around migration and economic disadvantage.”
What experiences have you had at Bryn Mawr that motivated you to apply for the Watson and informed your decision to pursue it?
“The big thing was the Bi-Co Dalun fellowship. Having that much freedom to plan how we would go about executing each project was really cool. Doing research on a global scale also came from that. And doing research with diverse populations. Even the internship I did in Massachusetts was through an alum from Bryn Mawr. So Bryn Mawr has always influenced me.”
What are you looking to get out of your fellowship?
“One thing I’m really hoping to get out of this is taking in different ways I can care for people, like my mother and the mothers who have raised me. That’s a big driving force for the fellowship. The way we think about mother-child relationships is that the mother is solely responsible for taking care of the child, whereas I view it more as a two-way street. Because that’s how I’ve experienced my relationship with my mother and with the other women who have raised me. So getting insight into what that looks like for different populations is the major thing. And also figuring out how health works, how we can give credit to modalities that aren’t necessarily clinical or biomedical in nature.”
Other than these amazing research goals, what personal goals do you hope to get out of this project?
“Being able to come back and have conquered the world on my own is a huge monumental feat. And right now, I don’t know if I’m ready to do it, but I have to be in a few months. And by the end of the year, I will have done it. And also having fun! I’m so excited to experience all these cultures, some of them similar, some of them radically different.”
Speaking of culture, what’s on your mind—stuff like food, language, religion—and how are you preparing?
“I’m not really worried about language in South Africa, because most people speak English. In Senegal, even though I speak French, most people will go to Wolof before speaking French. So I don’t know—am I going to be able to communicate effectively if I don’t speak the regional language? Also, it’s really isolating to have people talking around you and not know what’s going on! So that’s one anxiety. I also want to be super respectful. That’s going to have to be something I’ll have to be super diligent about in each country that I go to. I want to respect the space and the people. But I’m excited about food! Oh my god, I love food so much. And I’m excited to learn how to cook food from these regions.”
What are your plans for when you return?
“I want to go to med school. It’s a two-year break, and in my year that I’m back, I want to do something with women’s empowerment.”