Kiya Henderson ’23 Wins Prestigious Award for Academic Achievement Abroad

Kiya Henderson '23 at equator marker in Kenya.

As a junior, Kiya Henderson ’23 was on the fence during fall semester 2021 about doing Study Away from the Pomona College campus. Because of the pandemic, she says, “I left campus as a first-year and came back as a junior.” Already she was getting messages about preparing for her senior year. “Do I want to have more time on campus?” she wondered.

Ultimately, though, the appeal of studying in the School for International Training’s program in global health and human rights, based in Kisumu, Kenya, proved irresistible to Henderson, who majors in Africana Studies and is aiming for a career in medicine. Her semester abroad focused on research into maternal mortality, an area she has been studying at Pomona through much of her college experience.

In March, the Forum on Education Abroad announced that Henderson’s resulting paper, “A Retrospective Analysis of Maternal Mortality in Kisumu, Kenya from March 2021 to March 2022,” was the winner of its Award for Academic Achievement Abroad. This is the second time in the past three years that a Pomona student has won this prestigious honor from the international organization.

“I was really excited!” Henderson acknowledges. She knew that other students “were also doing very, very important work, so I was happy just to be recognized as a finalist. And then winning—this is amazing!”

In Kenya, Henderson was able to observe prenatal and postpartum medical interactions in two locations: Nyalenda Health Center, which serves the slum areas of Kisumu, Kenya’s second largest city, and the Kisumu County Referral Hospital. She analyzed countywide data on maternal mortality, looking for the main factors leading to maternal deaths, and she conducted in-person interviews to gain a fuller understanding of real-life experiences. Her research took into account proximal factors, like HIV status and health-seeking behaviors, as well as distal factors, such as marital and social status and religious affiliation.

“This was the first time I was a principal investigator and had the entire responsibility,” Henderson says. “I was really grateful for the opportunity.”

Henderson’s very first day doing a site visit and observing maternal and child health services is fused into her memory. “I had an overwhelming rush of emotions, because it felt like that was where I was supposed to be,” she says. By the time she returned home on May 14, 2022, she knew her career would focus on perinatology.

While Henderson felt honored by the recognition, she says she “really appreciated that the award board saw the value in my work and acknowledged that this is an important topic,” she says. Her paper cites a UNICEF report showing that in 2015, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) worldwide was 291 per 100,000 live births. In western Europe, the figure was 6; in North America it was 17, and the MMR among Black women in the U.S. was higher. By contrast, the MMR in Kenya was 362 per 100,000 live births, and in Kisumu County it was 495.

“I’m just hoping that getting this information and this data in different places will help work toward decreasing maternal mortality,” she says. The award “is less about what it’ll do for me and more what it will do for Black women and women of color in general. That’s the whole reason I did the research to begin with.”

Nicole Desjardins Gowdy directs the Pomona College International and Domestic Programs Office, where Henderson is now a peer mentor and has developed and hosted sessions on study away for pre-health students. “Through the SIT Kenya program, Kiya engaged with topics around public health and equity in a health care context very different from the U.S.,” Gowdy says. “She deepened her understanding of the nuances of culture and other factors impacting women’s access to health care and their outcomes not only in a Kenyan environment, but also on a more global level and with relevance to the U.S. context.”

As a peer mentor, says Gowdy, “Kiya’s openness about her experiences abroad, the way she navigated Kenya as a U.S. student, and the role her identities played in the experience have enriched her work with her peers. She continually inspires other students to consider how they approach the study away experience with intention, self-awareness, flexibility and an open mind.”