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Presidential Scholar returns to Wofford after journey abroad

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Author: By: Brie White, Senior Writer

The Presidential Scholar is hand selected by college President Nayef Samhat after being nominated by an anonymous professor. Punam Mulji ’17, named Presidential Scholar in the Spring of 2016, had a research experience unlike any other. The are no specific qualifications for the scholar, but the student must submit a research proposal along the lines of “anything you want to learn about the world.” For Punam Mulji, it was women’s access to healthcare in rural communities.

Mulji is a child of Indian immigrants and had an open-heart surgery eight years ago. This procedure took place in Charleston, and Spartanburg-native Mulji says, “I started thinking about constantly driving four hours to Charleston and how I had to do that in order to get a surgery that I needed. This is in the United States–a very advanced society. We are so fortunate for the access to health care that we have, but four hours isn’t convenient.

“Some of the people I met abroad lived over six hours away from the nearest hospital. I don’t think many Americans can imagine this kind of society. I’m Indian, and in India patriarchy rules. My father is a physician, but if he hadn’t been so open-minded there’s no way I would’ve had that surgery that was essential to my health.”

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Mulji interviewed 85 women in Haiti, 137 in Bolivia, 190 in Guatemala and 24 in India, along with health care professionals. Her goal was to learn about rural women’s access to female healthcare in patriarchal communities as compared to empirical societies. Rev. Dr. Ron Robinson helped Mulji facilitate research opportunities. “Had it not been for him, and for the support I had from Wofford, none of this would have been possible,” says Mulji.

Mulji will present her research in the later half of this semester on campus, and she wrote a 30 page paper on her experience in India, the implications of the lack of access to healthcare and possible solutions. Some of her data was sent to CurAmericas and has the potential to be published. Ultimately, she says, “You can’t fix third world countries and that isn’t the intention.” Still, she mentions, “…there are definitely problems that were shocking and unnerving to me. You can see incidences where people’s lives would have been saved if something had been done differently. ”

Mulji experienced live, home births, talked with birth attendants and inquired with native women about their preventative health. “They know nothing about sexual health,” she notes.

Culture shock didn’t begin to encompass everything she was dealing with. “I knew going in that the cultures were different. I am a child of immigrants. I’m aware of the world outside of the United States,” she says. “Still, it was so much harder than I believed it would be. I showered in frigid water and saw conditions that were heinous. It was insane to realize that no one was advocating for these women and they weren’t educated enough to advocate for themselves. These cultures are designed so women are subordinate.”

After every interview, Mulji took a photo of the woman’s hands. “These women carry their households and their children. They are strong willed and the oppression is something we can’t even fathom in the United States. Their hands tell their story of hard work and manual labor,” she says.

A personal goal of hers was to attend a cultural event in each place. In Bolivia, she attended a baby shower; in India, a wedding; in Guatemala, a funeral and in Haiti, pre-independence day celebrations. She says, “I wanted to feel like I was embracing the cultures, so I celebrated with them, grieved with them, felt a part of them as much as I was able to… I loved this experience but I’m glad to be home.”

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    Gayle SuggsMar 7, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    I love it and I love you! You are awesome my wonderful niece ! Miss you and hope to see you soon. The article was fascinating ! What a hard , but eye opening experience for her! Now for her to share it with others to perhaps shine a light on these women and the hard lives they lead! It really saddens me the plight of women in this world ! Especially third world countries but also here to a lesser degree! So proud of you and this young woman for using your voices to better our world! The future is bright indeed for you both!?????