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U of I student takes studies outside the classroom
"It was an excellent experience and definitely life changing,” said University of Illinois Human and Community Development (HCD) graduate student Roger Figueroa about his recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa. “Visiting the country gave me the opportunity to see aspects of life that I haven’t experienced before; it added a new perspective to my area of work, both personally and professionally.”
Figueroa was among 15 students who made a three-week trip to South Africa with HCD Teaching Associate Jan Brooks. Brooks has been bringing students to South Africa during winter break as part of a study abroad course since 2008. While in Cape Town, Figueroa conducted a qualitative study on childhood obesity by interviewing health professionals and child care givers in several communities. He explored how childhood obesity is perceived in these communities.
According to Figueroa’s research, South African medical professionals were not as concerned about obesity since they have other, more urgent health concerns such as HIV, tuberculosis, and other diseases. It is estimated that 5,700,000 South Africans have the HIV virus, which is just under 12% of the total population.
“It was very interesting to understand what other countries are doing to address childhood obesity.” Figueroa said. “There are so many contributors to childhood obesity. There are so many things in the environment that play a role.”
Compared to the United States, while the rate is declining, fewer South African children are obese from ages 2-5. Only 3.3% of South African children are considered obese compared to 8% here in the United States. The United States have seen a 43% drop in childhood obesity over the past decade.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Figueroa received his bachelor’s degree in physical education from Bayamon Central University and his master’s in health and kinesiology from the University of Texas at San Antonio. One factor that drew Figueroa to study at the University of Illinois was the world-class faculty, including his advisors HCD Associate Professor Angela Wiley and Kinesiology & Community Health Assistant Professor Diana Grigsby-Toussaint.
Another reason Figueroa came to Illinois was the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program (I-TOPP), which enables students to earn a joint master’s of public health and doctoral degree focused on obesity prevention and childhood health and wellbeing. Figueroa was one of the 11 graduate students accepted in the I-TOPP scholar program, which uses a transdisciplinary approach to integrate nutrition, physical activity, public health science, family science, human development, economics, and public health practices.
“Being an I-TOPP scholar has been a blessing,” said Figueroa, noting how it has supported him financially with an academic tuition waiver and five-year traineeship stipend, but also academically. “I think there is so much that I have learned, particularly in the role(s) of providers towards children’s health, as well as nutrition and physical activity practices in those settings.”
The South African research was not the first time Figueroa studied perceptions about obesity. While earning his master’s degree in Texas, he conducted a qualitative study that explored Hispanic adults’ perceptions of obesity and media-related strategies to obesity prevention. In fact, that qualitative study was recently published in Journal of Research in Obesity. Among his findings were that the adults were aware of how serious the obesity problem was in the Hispanic community, and they thought the media – particularly Spanish television – could play an important role in addressing the problem by using celebrities to promote healthy lifestyles.
Figueroa will complete his masters of public health and doctorate in the spring of 2017. He plans to continue his childhood obesity prevention research and seek a position in academia, where his work can be transdisciplinary, as I-TOPP is, as well as translational, so as to influence future practices and policies in a positive way.