What began as a temporary job has developed into a passion for Monsicha Poolsawat, CAS/MA’03. Poolsawat had no experience or education in public health when she was hired as a temporary secretary at the HIV/AIDS Collaboration, a joint project between the Thai Ministry of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though she knew relatively little about HIV/AIDS when she began - much like many of the Thai youth she now works with - Poolsawat has learned about the issue and discovered she’s especially interested in the behavioral and social issues that complicate Thailand’s HIV prevention programs.
Interested in learning more about these behavioral issues, Poolsawat left her home in Bangkok for AU in 2001 to begin her Master’s in Psychology. A self-proclaimed “city girl,” Poolsawat was drawn to AU because of its Washington, D.C. location, as well as the courses offered in the Psychology department.
Poolsawat returned to Thailand after completing her degree, where she soon found herself doing HIV/AIDS work again. She was hired to work for the International AIDS Conference held in Bangkok in July 2004 as an assistant to the communications director of the International AIDS Society.
Following the conference, Poolsawat began her current position working for the Thai Ministry of Public Health/CDC Collaboration’s Global AIDS Program as a youth project coordinator. There, she was able to reconnect with her initial interest in behavioral and social issues, and put her psychology degree to use by working on HIV prevention in the youth population. Research shows that increasingly more Thai youth become sexually active each year, yet limited access to information means many know very little about safe sex methods. Just as in the U.S., sex education is a controversial topic among teachers, parents, and other gatekeepers of information, and some schools are reluctant or refuse to include the topic in their sex-education programs.
Poolsawat has found that education alone is not enough. Cultural and social factors still play a major role in HIV and STD transmission in Thailand. For instance, there is a conventional belief that a “decent” girl should be obedient and should not know much about sexual intercourse. In her work, Poolsawat has found that many Thai girls understand how HIV is transmitted, and they know that condoms can help prevent HIV transmission, yet they will not negotiate with their partners for condom use because “good girls” are not supposed to know about condoms. “Unfortunately,” Poolsawat says, “many girls choose a ‘good girl’ image over safe sex.”
One of the main lessons of her work is that the prevention of HIV/AIDS transmission is “not about only correcting or constructing a person’s knowledge, but also changing the person’s attitudes and habits where culture and beliefs take deep roots.” She is using these lessons and her psychology degree as she works on developing a life skills manual for young people, focusing on the issue of sexuality. The handbook will consist of 3 topics: understanding your physical self, understanding your mental self, and being aware of risk situation.
Poolsawat says the most satisfying part of her job is working with youth. “I like to learn what they think and how they feel about issues, not only on HIV/AIDS or reproductive health. Most of them are enthusiastic to learn and happy to share their information with me.”