Eboni Hooper-Boateng on the Peace Corps and Community Health

eboni hooper boateng

“I majored in Biology with the intent (like many) to become a medical doctor. However, after being exposed to sociology, that all changed. I wanted to find a way to merge both the study of life and the study of social and societal behaviors. Ultimately, I was led to public health.” Eboni tells us about her experience as a Prevention Specialist, her time as a Peace Corps volunteer, and what she feels is necessary to succeed as a health professional

Name: Eboni Hooper-Boateng, Prevention Specialist, Saint Louis Effort For AIDS
Age: 27
Location:  St. Louis, MO
Education: Bachelor of Arts Biology, Xavier University of Louisiana

What was your first ‘big girl’ job out of college, and how did you land that position?

A Lab Technician at the Red Cross in the Immunohematology Lab. I always love saying the lab name because it sounds soooo fancy! Basically, for the donated blood, I did blood typing and tested it for syphilis and Cytomegalovirus (CMV). Ironically enough I got the job because of you! You were working at the Red Cross about to move to California for your fellowship, told me about the position, and recommended me. It’s all about networking.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

This is one of those questions that causes you to over analyze your life and start thinking that you haven’t done anything that noteworthy… professionally at least. I’d have to say my time in Ghana as a teacher. I was in a school where a majority of the kids were not reading at a high school level. Nothing was wrong with them, their school system just failed them. There were some students I did extra classes with after school and they learned how to read! I’ll never forget how excited and proud they were of themselves. They may not have gotten to the level at which they needed to be, but none of that mattered because their confidence was there now! I remember once a student came running to me excited about a test he took. Here I am thinking he’s about to say he got an “A” when all he wanted to share was that he failed. However, this time he could read the questions, he just didn’t know the answers [laughter]. We laughed paaaaaaa (Ghanaian slang for “a lot”). The reading lessons then progressed to writing so that he could express himself.

What are your main responsibilities as a Prevention Specialist?

In a nutshell I do HIV/STI testing and provide sex education centered on HIV/STI prevention. On the prevention team, we each focus on a specific population. I work under the Minority AIDS Initiative, so I work with people of color. More specifically, I work with inner city African-Americans. During testing, we assist the client with developing a risk reduction plan. If needed, we also provide counseling and act as a liaison for linkage to care when resulted HIV positive. For many, I may be the first person to deliver that news making the counseling they get in that moment critical! In risk reduction, we are very sex positive. Our saying is “don’t yuck someone’s yummm” [laughter]. It’s not my job to tell you what to do and not to do. I simply provide you with options to do whatever you see fit the safest way possible to reduce your risk of contracting HIV or any STI. If you shoot up and share needles, rehab may not be a reality for you at this time, but in the meantime, I have bleach kits for you to clean your rigs; when you’re ready for rehab, you can call me and we can set it up. Pretty much, it’s meeting people where they are and not shame them.

What is a typical day (or week) like for you?

80% of my time is out in the field and the rest in the office. In the office, I’m testing people who come in, working on reports, planning an outreach, giving people their results and answering phone calls related to anything sex and STIs. Calls and walk-in visits can be a result of, “I’m burning.”, “I heard _____ , is it true?”, to “I think my partner cheating on me and I want to be tested.” Out in the field, I’m  in our mobile unit with my co-workers. We cruise the streets of St. Louis city offering testing in the projects, on the stroll, areas of high injection drug use, etc. We also have condom drop off sites within the community at places like local bars, clubs, beauty/barber shops, and tattoo parlors to supply free condoms (plug: Visit stlcondoms.com and enter your zip code. It will show you all the places where you can get free condoms and testing.)

condom tray

What do you like most about your work?

My team! They are amazing. We laugh all day every day. The stuff we talk and joke about, in another job setting, you’d definitely be fired in a heartbeat. I remember in my interview, they asked if I could handle talking about sex openly and candidly without being offended? Of course, I said yes, but little did I know how real it was going to get. I’ve learned A LOT about sex [laughter] but I love it! I also love that we work with people from all walks of life and get the chance to educate people. As a young black woman, I love counseling the young girls. You remember being young and asking your friends who know just as much as you, if not less than you, a bunch of questions about sex. I love getting to be that cool big sis, or lady they can feel free to talk to and get the facts! It helps break down that stigma that is EXTREMELY heavy in our community due to lack of education. There are still people out here who really think they can catch HIV from shaking hands. 

eboni hooper boateng and team
What do you like least about your work?

Hands down telling someone that they are HIV positive. It’s never easy and always takes a little piece of you in that moment. Especially when it’s a young person. The 13-24 age group is still the highest age group for new infections. Telling a 17 year old that they’re positive is never easy. People get tested for all sorts of reasons, but personally, the people who come because they are victims of sexual assault, are definitely the hardest. When I first started this job, I was a newlywed and at the time my husband was still overseas. Hearing all the stories of different men coming in because they’re cheating, living double lives and on the “down low” was hard. I mean I’m a human and insecurities can set in when you hear this all day and your husband is in whole other continent [laughter]. I’ve gotten over that part and it doesn’t bother me at all anymore, but giving a positive result isn’t something you get use to even if it’s a reality of the job.

How did you become interested in this field?

When I left the Red Cross I went to Ghana, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Although I was an education volunteer teaching high school biology in my spare time I started doing a lot of after school. Programs centered on Gender Youth Development, Adolescent Reproductive Health, STIs, how to use condoms and condom negotiation. Those projects expanded and I ended up doing a community wide event on HIV education and prevention. Once I got back to the states I looked for youth jobs within that same realm and eventually saw the job posting for where I work now.

You mentioned that you served as a Peace Corp volunteer in Ghana, how did you become interested in pursuing that opportunity?

Unlike many of the people I served with, I’d never heard of the US Peace Corps (PC). It’s funny because I realize a lot of black folk haven’t while other ummm demographics have literally been planning this since they were kids [laughter]. I had an English professor at Xavier University who announced he was done teaching and was considering joining the Peace Corps or going to law school. After talking to him about what it was I became intrigued. Shortly after, some recruiters came and did a presentation on campus. I’m all like “IT’S A SIGN! IT’S A SIGN!” At that point, I decided when I graduated that I would pursue the PC. Yup, I’m pretty impulsive like that; if it feels right, I go for it.

Tell us a little more about your experience as a Peace Corp volunteer (i.e. duration, location, assignment, etc.)

This could actually be an interview in of itself [laughter]. The Peace Corps is a 2-year (minimum) commitment. This doesn’t include the 3-month intense training before your commitment starts, so it’s more like 2 1/2yrs.  Volunteer locations are all over the world with various sectors of focus including education, agriculture, community economic development, health, environment, and youth in development. I was placed in Ghana, West Africa more specifically the Ashanti Region in a small town about an hour outside of the regions capital Kumasi, which is the 2nd largest metropolitan city in Ghana. My sector was education and my primary project was as a High School Biology Teacher. I applied thinking I’d be placed in the health sector but everything happens for a reason.

What was the most challenging part about being a Peace Corp volunteer?

EVERYTHING! [laughter] Just kidding. Although I missed people, I’ve never been a homesick kind of person but for me it wasn’t being away from home, just the hardship of being alone. In the Peace Corps, you go through the 3-month training with the group you arrived in country with. However, once that’s finished, you each go to your own site spread all over the country; that two years is just you!

I realized being famous is not for me. Being the American girl drew so much attention, people constantly talking about you, rumors, etc.; it was overwhelming at times. People often assume being black in an all black nation is the best thing ever and while it had its upside it was still difficult. The effects of colonialism are too deep to delve into, but let’s just say in many cases the white Peace Corps volunteers were placed on pedestal, and you’re just a lost reject that has them wondering where is the “real American”. Also, as a very pro-black person, being called white was tough. Of course, people knew I wasn’t white, but they saw it as I was raised in the white man’s land so my mentally is white. Honestly, no matter how much we may long to be connected to our homeland, culturally we are different. Since our skin looked alike, people often felt I should know better. They would be more offended if I made a cultural mistake opposed to the white person who “didn’t know better”. Like I mentioned earlier, most black folk don’t know about Peace Corps. That’s obvious in the number of black volunteers there are; there’s not that many other people to confide in that will understand the struggle and since the training we get is focused on (white) American culture, you often find yourself feeling like a minority within in a minority. Also, I’m not good at learning new languages so that was challenging, but I eventually reached a point I was pretty good.

What was the most rewarding part about being a Peace Corp volunteer?

It takes time, but the sincere connections you make are bonds you’ll never forget. I have some friends I miss dearly and love so much. You go there thinking you’re about to help but you end up being the one getting helped. I learned so much and my perception will forever be changed for the better. Upon returning I was horrified I wouldn’t be able to relate to or worse not like my friends in the state. I saw the world differently after that experience. America is just sickening with all the materialism, etc. I don’t want to hear about your new clothes and makeup, there’s real shit happening. Peace Corps allowed me to see things for what they are, appreciate the little joys, live life humble without all the extra stuff! When you don’t have much, you value people and how they make you feel more. I made some real connections there because phones and TV weren’t consistent; people preferred to talk face to face. We really were a community helping one another and having deep conversations. If we were on the phone it was literally because I’m telling you I’m coming over to talk [laughter]. Of course, all the kids that told me I impacted their lives and write me on FB telling me what they’re up to now is super rewarding. Being told how me believing in them when others didn’t helped them get through school, is the best.

Additionally, educating people about being African American and showing them the way we get portrayed in the media isn’t reality was rewarding. I’m no Love and Hip Hop, loud talking, mean lady. On the flip side, it’s rewarding to be able to share images to educate friends, family, and the like back home that Ghanaians aren’t poor potbelly starving people. By the way, the food is LIFE. This GMO crap in the states should be illegal.

What were your biggest lessons learned/take a ways from your Peace Corp experience that you apply to your everyday personal and professional life? 

Appreciate the small things [laughter].

What skills do you think are necessary to succeed in your field?

Opened-mindedness for sure. You have to be no judgment zone minded. You can’t really help people if they don’t feel comfortable opening up to you about their sex life. If I cringe my face because someone says they’ve had 30+ partners in the last 6 months, you can believe they won’t be truthful when I ask the rest of my questions. How can we talk about how to reduce risks if I don’t know them? Leave the judgement at home! We all have something we can relate to.

You also have to be good at reading people. I think my time as a waitress helps out here. Some people want to talk, some just like do the test and aren’t into all the laughing and small talk. With some people you have to remain very professional using technical terms. Others need that, “giiiiiiirrrrrl let me tell you, yes you can get an STD in yo booty hole, and if you givin’ head yes you can get gonorrhea and chlamydia in your throat, so let me swab yo throat real quick lil mamma” type talk.

Even more, know your limits. Some people are looking for a therapy session. You have to be able to draw that line. Know when to say this is beyond me, but here are some resources for you.

What advice do you have for aspiring community health and other health professionals?

Do what makes you happy! You’re young and have the world ahead of you! Follow your instincts and don’t let fear (yours or others) dictate your life. If you want to move, then move. If you want to change your major change, do that ish. I wouldn’t be where I am now (happy AF) if I had listened to what other people. Trust me when they see you living, they’ll be the first to brag about your accomplishments.

Also, network! Use your resources and don’t be afraid to ask questions.Try volunteering to get your foot in the door. Everything happens in its own time. Don’t stress out too much about timelines. Live the chapter of life you’re in to the fullest even if it’s not your favorite chapter.

What advice would you give your 23-year-old self? 

Okay, while I was overseas my aging in my head essentially stopped. I’m literally like, “Damn, I guess 23 was a minute ago huh?” [laughter]. Let’s see…23 was in 2013, and that was my year. I graduated college, went skydiving and my plan A, B, and C all came through. It was to get accepted in PC, go to grad school or work [laughter]. I’d tell myself that  my instincts haven’t lead me wrong and that I made the right choice with the PC.  I’d also tell myself to enjoy each second, even the shitty ones; 2 years will go by faster than you think! Education will be there, experiences come and go.

If people would like to know more about the Peace Corp, community health or being a Prevention Specialist, how can they reach you? 

Peacecoprs.gov or if you want that real a lot of people write blogs while serving. Try googling Peace corps blogs, I’m sure something will pop up. For me IG @gizmostar.  Also, Sirena! She knows how to contact me and if you trying to have an in-depth conversation she can link us.

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