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Korbel School alumna on study abroad and graduating in the age of COVID-19

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Courtland Matthews

Communications Manager, Josef Korbel School of International Studies

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Parke during a visit to Ecabazini, a traditional Zulu village, organized by the UKZN International Office.

For alumna Dana Parke, study abroad has opened doors since her time as an undergraduate student in Dakar, Senegal. That study abroad experience in addition to her triple major in International Relations, African Studies, and French helped her to land a position within the Global Health Initiative department at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

When she decided to pursue graduate study in 2018, Korbel was one of her top schools because of the strength of the international development program. “Korbel’s diverse course offerings and the ability to tailor specializations were definitely all deciding factors. I was also extremely fortunate to be selected as a Sié Fellow,” notes Parke.

The Sié Fellowship is a two-year, free-tuition scholarship to Korbel awarded each year to outstanding master’s degree-seeking students from the U.S. and abroad.

At Korbel, Parke explored her interest in the social determinants of health, looking at areas such as transportation and housing. She worked with Associate Professor Rebecca Galemba to research the I-70 highway redevelopment and improve the local hire program involved in its construction. Parke also was mentored by Assistant Professor Singumbe Muyeba, who shared an interest in housing and informal settlements in Africa. 

While she initially planned to pursue the Semester in Geneva program, during her first quarter at Korbel, Parke happened to hear about a new partnership forming with the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. “I was immediately interested – and once I learned they had courses on housing, I was determined to study there,” says Parke. Following careful planning with Korbel faculty and the International Office, Parke arranged to spend her last two quarters at the University of KwaZulu-Natal from January-June 2020.

Before traveling to Durban, she connected with two South African exchange students to learn some isiZulu and better understand the culture. She also arranged to stay with a welcoming host family to better immerse herself. This preparation was helpful as she was the first University of Denver student to participate in the partnership.

Dana parke
Parke and her host father Kanthan Pillay and her host grandmother Dhaiya.









Unfortunately, the experience proved short-lived as COVID-19 began to spread across the globe. On March 15th, the President of South Africa announced that the borders would be closed and Parke made the difficult decision to leave South Africa. While lucky to get one of the last flights back to the U.S., Parke, unfortunately, caught COVID-19 en route. The recovery process took several weeks, and she had to scramble to register for 5 spring classes at DU in order to graduate. Despite the challenges, Parke completed her courses virtually, including her housing course with the University of KwaZulu-Natal when it reopened in June. “Although my time in Durban was cut short, I would not have traded it for anything. My coursework solidified my passion for pursuing housing as my career – and I now have lifelong family, friends, and colleagues in Durban,” Parke shares.

Since graduating in August with a M.A. in International Development, Parke has continued working with Pauline Adebayo, her mentor and professor from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In April, they published a paper together, which looks at health, housing, and equity in the time of COVID-19 using two case studies of Detroit and Durban. “COVID-19 has really shown that housing is such an important determinant of health. You can’t shelter in place if you are homeless or quarantine if you live in overcrowded housing,” says Parke.

In the summer of 2020, Parke shifted her work focus from capacity building globally to COVID-19 response locally in Detroit as a Study Manager for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine trials at Henry Ford Health System. While the challenge was daunting, the importance of the work only acted as an accelerant. “Our team went above and beyond. Typically, a clinical trial takes a year to plan, but we pulled it off in 6 weeks,” Parke notes. Later Parke began leading mobile vaccination teams to increase equity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Detroit. “While COVID-19 interrupted my semester in South Africa, I’m extremely honored to have been part of the solution to interrupt COVID-19’s devastation,” Parke shares.

In May, she accepted a new position at Henry Ford Health System as a Program Manager for Clinical and Social Health Integration within the Population Health department. In this new role, Parke will focus on housing and transportation projects, drawing upon her knowledge and experience gained in both Denver and in Durban.