From Intern to Field Worker, Part 1: My MSF Journey

By Vivian Peng

This post is part 1 of a 3-part series, published weekly in October 2017.

Age 14:

I’m sitting in those high school desks where the table connects to the chair, the surface area only big enough to support half of my notebook. On the television, a documentary on humanitarian aid plays. It’s the first time I hear about the Rwandan genocide. It’s also the first time I hear about Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Age 17:

I’m sitting in my college counselor’s office, filling out a 200-question survey on my interests. This assessment is supposed to help me figure out what I want to do in life. I’m told that I like science. My grades support this assumption, too. I could go into medicine, they say.

Age 18:

I’m sitting at the dinner table and reminiscing about when I first learned how to properly hold chopsticks. My parents had told me that the higher up your hands are on the chopsticks, the farther away from home you’ll end up one day. I move my hands up. You see, earlier in the day, I was researching summer internships at the MSF-USA office in New York. I try to ask my parents if I should apply, but I can’t find the courage. My hands slide back down the chopsticks.

Age 20:

I’m sitting at my desk with headphones in my ears. I feel a tap on my shoulder, and jump out of my seat, startled. My roommate asks, “Are you coming out with us?” “Not tonight,” I say, and pore over my molecular cell biology books.

Age 21:

I’m sitting on the bus after finishing my practice exams. My score has not improved, even though I’m one week away from taking the MCATs officially, for the second time. I’m frustrated because in class, I can draw all the biological systems by heart. I can solve organic chemistry equations and explain how certain generic aberrations lead to specific health consequences. But on the standardized test, this doesn’t show. I feel a mental barrier, and I’m scared of what it might mean. I can’t help but feel that I’m not ready to commit to this career path. I calculate the number of years before I can become a doctor. Eight, at least. I’m too young–no, not young, uncertain–to make this commitment. I call my mom to say I don’t want to apply to medical school. I want to do creative work. “Doctors can be creative, too, you know,” my mom replies. I know, but not in the way that I want to be creative. She says it’s OK if I don’t know yet, but to take the test anyway so that I never have to question if I tried my best during this chapter of my life.

Age 22:

I’m sitting on the cement floor in a house in Tanzania. Next to me is a mattress. A woman lies on top, her body so thin she barely makes an indention on the surface. She’s the first person I’ve ever met living with AIDS. Tomorrow, she will pass away, and I will find out that her family sold her medication instead of giving her treatment. I will become impossibly angry and question the impact of my HIV awareness work for the last 3 months.

Age 23:

I’m sitting in front of a computer screen working on some animations for the launch of an online game. I spill coffee on my shirt and rush to the restroom to wash it off before it stains. I’m reminded of my last summer, hand-washing clothes in Tanzania. When I return to my desk, I see my work in a whole new light. This work is fun, I think, but wouldn’t it be great to make animations for something health-related as opposed to a silly gem matching game?

Age 24:

I’m sitting at orientation for my Master’s program in public health. Our Dean talks about the time commitment and sternly suggests that we should not take on any jobs unless we have to. I shrug my shoulders. My position as a web intern for MSF-USA starts in 2 weeks. Yes, this is something I have to do.

Age 26:

I’m sitting on my fire escape after turning down my first fulltime job offer since grad school. The position offered stability, something I didn’t have for the past two years working as a freelance graphic and web designer. Even with all its perks, it just didn’t compare to the excitement I felt each time working on projects for MSF. A few months later, I’ll find myself in the MSF-USA office signing a fulltime employment contract as a digital officer for our A Fair Shot campaign.

Age 27:

I’m sitting in Pfizer’s annual shareholder meeting. My MSF colleagues have just asked the CEO what Pfizer will do to lower the price of the pneumonia vaccine. You see, pneumonia is the number one killer of kids around the world. Pfizer makes a vaccine to protect against infection, but many countries can’t afford it. The CEO’s response is harsh and uncompromising. I leave feeling defeated. We’re dreaming to believe our campaign can have any kind of influence, I think.

Age 28:

I’m sitting on some bike racks nearby Pfizer’s headquarters. We’re getting ready to live stream a demonstration when my colleague hands me his phone. I read the press release that’s open on the screen. “Wait, is this real?” I ask in disbelief. “Yes,” he says. Pfizer just announced that they will lower the price of the pneumonia vaccine for humanitarian organizations.

The impact of this announcement doesn’t hit me. It won’t sink in until many months later when I’m cleaning my office and find remnants of all the content we created over the years to accomplish that dream of a price reduction. I see piles of fake cash we dumped on Pfizer’s doorstep to show their greed. I see a dried petal from the 2,500 flowers we used to demonstrate how many kids die from pneumonia each day. I read an anonymous postcard from a Pfizer employee who encouraged us to continue this work. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the thousands of people who rallied behind this cause and helped us make a positive impact.

Some days, I’m behind a computer, coding a website for people to engage with our campaign. Other days, I’m buying candy from the pharmacy downstairs to work on a stop-motion animation.

Age 29:

I’m sitting in our Nairobi office running on three hours of sleep and one cup of coffee. Sitting across from me, the Head of Mission is welcoming me to the project and briefing me on security rules. I can barely keep my eyes open. I nod along, and remind myself to smile here and there. Before I can comprehend what’s happening, he tosses me one of those iconic white MSF field vests. He tells me to put the vest on and leave my backpack behind. “Can I bring my pen and notebook?” I ask. “Sure,” he says, and sends me off to Kibera in an MSF car.

In the car, I can’t help but laugh a little. This was the moment I had been dreaming about. For years, I thought about what it would feel like to wear an official MSF vest, and somehow in the present, it felt so insignificant, so mundane. Yet in this ho-hum feeling, it finally clicked in my mind that this was actually happening. That somehow, in spite of all the changes in my aspirations and career choices, I still managed to end up exactly where I wanted to be all along– on a field mission for MSF.

It’s funny how life works out that way. I’m not the doctor that I envisioned I’d be, but what I do now is beyond anything that I could’ve dreamt up myself. Officially, my title in MSF is a communications officer, which means I develop content to raise awareness about our work. But personally, I like to think of myself as a creative activist in MSF.

The issues that I work on, like getting Pfizer to lower the price of the pneumonia vaccine, are not in mainstream media. I have to think strategically about how to bring the issue into public consciousness first, and then think creatively about how to get others to care about the issue and take action with us. That means my day-to-day changes every moment.

Some days, I’m behind a computer, coding a website for people to engage with our campaign. Other days, I’m buying candy from the pharmacy downstairs to work on a stop-motion animation.

Most recently, I was in Kibera building an art installation to commemorate the 20 years of MSF working in the community.

I look at this picture of myself in Kibera and I’m in awe of all the steps, big and small, that led me here. I think of all the people whose actions, direct and indirect, helped me get to this point. I smile, because I can’t believe that MSF sent me to the field with blue hair (it’s faded since this picture was taken). Not only did I find my way into this organization, but also I can be unapologetically, 100% me, because MSF embraces and accepts me with all my quirks.

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