Curiosity inspired Holly Nicole Kandel ’16 to move to Senegal. She built a career in Africa, advocating for health and community development.
By Kris Dreessen
Holly Nicole Kandel ’16 spent six months studying French language and literature in southern France as a Geneseo psychology and Francophone studies double major. But it was her on-campus classes about literature of non-European, French-speaking countries that really piqued her interest.
“I didn’t realize how diverse the French-speaking world is,” says Kandel. “There is so much diversity in cultures, politics, styles of dress, and food. It made me want to discover more, learn more, and see it with my own eyes.”
She hadn’t visited Africa before she moved to Senegal after graduation in 2016.
Associate Professor Kodjo Adabra helped her earn a position teaching English and science at a private international high school in Dakar, the capital.
“My entire world flipped upside down,” remembers Kandel. “Everything changed. I experienced, for the first time, to be different from everyone else.”
Kandel changed the way she communicated, learning new greetings and how to make conversation in English, French and Wolof. Suddenly, she was negotiating the price of fruit at a market stand and figuring out how to take a taxi. Everyone she met was a new relationship to navigate, within a new culture.
“I think week one was enough to realize I was limited by my comfort zone,” laughs Kandel. “I wanted to learn about my comfort and expand my limits.”
When her two-year school contract ended, Kandel was named a fellow with the United Nations Sustainable Development Group and also accepted a new role with the Global Research and Advocacy Group.
“I felt like there was still so much I didn’t know,” says Kandel. “There was still so much room for growth and opportunities to be involved with the community. I wasn’t ready to leave, professionally or socially.”
Kandel has yet to leave West Africa.
She has built a career with international nonprofit organizations, rooted in inquiry, health, and community development, and committed to working with local partners and Ministries of Health toward their goals. She has focused on female reproductive health, including female genital mutilation/cutting and youth access to family planning and reproductive health services.
Kandel was also part of a virtual team at UNESCO. Members spread across nine countries investigated impacts of COVID-19 on young people’s human rights, particularly regarding sexual reproduction and health.
In 2021, Kandel began working toward her master’s in public health through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health. As a graduate research assistant, she investigates abortion practices in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and how they align with World Health Organization best practices.
Kandel is now the senior regional associate for the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), in the DRC. She lives in the capital, Kinshasa, and leads management and support for CHAI teams in three West African countries — the DRC, Benin and Burkina Faso — whose goals include strengthening community health systems and preventing and treating malaria.
The teams provide technical and other assistance to government and community health partners on national projects, such as improving access to malaria diagnostic testing, strengthening research and analytical capacities for improving health systems, and working toward universal health coverage. As an example, CHAI created 10 new community care sites and trained 20 community health workers that have been testing for and treating malaria in those remote communities for the first time.
“I am a resource for teams — and having an intimate knowledge of how systems work, the community, and the society is imperative,” she says. “We need to understand the culture and how to work within it to achieve any results.”
Kandel has learned a lot, including more patience.
“I’ve learned it’s okay to feel like you have no control over anything, because, at times, you won’t, especially in the Congo, where dynamics are very complex,” she says. “Even with everyone working together with the same goals, there will not necessarily be enough resources to overcome all the challenges. It can be frustrating, and it’s hard to feel patient. Being at peace with that is really important.”
Kandel is always discovering more about herself — and always asking questions to better connect with others and improve as a team-building partner.
“It’s so important to be curious, so we have the opportunity to grow,” says Kandel. “It shows that you can acknowledge when you don’t know something and are open to the perspectives of other people.”