How UVU Students Provided Public Health Services in Cambodia


Alexis Geist is a nontraditional student. The mother of five children is a senior in public health, passionate about her family, and making a positive difference in the world.

She set out on a journey to Cambodia with Utah Valley University professor Brian Barthel and two other students, Kevin Larsen and Sydney Crabb. The trip changed lives 8,000 miles away from Orem, Utah, and forever transformed Alexis and her peers. But for Alexis, it also provided new purpose and direction.

“I wanted to do something different. I wanted that chance to start something in my life outside of my comfort zone,” she said. “It’s one thing to sit in a world health class and hear about problems that you have no background on, but to go and do — to carry out a program or see what you’re reading about, that makes a lasting impact.”

Geist pursued public health, intending to become a physician’s assistant eventually. She immersed herself in coursework while looking for opportunities to experience what she was being taught in the classroom.

“It changed how I view everything. I wasn’t aware that things are the same there as when there was genocide. I wasn’t aware that people might have four posts and a half a roof and they live that way.”

 The stark differences between countries also struck Kevin Larsen. “It’s kind of eye-opening going from a first-world country like America, to a place where the man of the house is grateful to be wearing a woman’s shirt that is two sizes too big for him, and he’s grateful for what he has, because it’s the only thing he has to cover himself for the day.”

 Providing basic life necessities was the goal of the UVU team. Clean water, hand-washing stations, and latrines can make the difference between life or death from infection. The Solidarity Fund for Rural Development Foundation, a local Cambodian relief organization, provided help obtaining supplies, a prioritized list of families and villages, and made the necessary contacts. Professor Barthel cultivated a relationship with its director, Chhay Leang SUY, during the past year with the hope of creating an engaged learning experience for his students. “The project seemed ideal and doable for a future UVU Public and Community Health Department project.”

 Studying grant writing allowed Alexis Geist to help create a proposal that garnered the financial backing necessary to purchase eight latrines, hand-washing stations, and water sanitation systems. DoTERRA also sponsored the opportunity to teach female health education and provided 200 reusable hygiene kits created through the “Days for Girls International.” Young women frequently miss school because of their inability to manage their menstrual cycle. Conventional products are unavailable. The UVU students visited numerous schools and spoke on reproductive health.

 “I will never forget their response to our interactions. I was surprised that not just the girls needed our hygiene products, but the teachers needed them too. Professional women were asking us if they could have one. Everybody was in need of that,” Geist said.

 She was touched by the gratitude of those who received the simple gift, sewn by doTERRA volunteers in Utah.

 “One of the things [that] made the greatest impression was seeing lives changed by something so simple. I handed a young girl, probably 11 or 12 years old, her undies, and she grabbed my hands and looked up into my eyes and said, ‘Thank you very much.’ My heart just melted.”

 Kevin Larsen said he felt the trip was also successful at creating sustainable benefits. He remembers a rural village where they were installing the fourth out of eight latrines in a day.

 “This lady wearing a suitcoat and slacks showed up and was watching us. She turned out to be the leader of the village. She just observed on one of the latrines, and listened as we educated the family.  Then she followed us to the next two installations. Not only did she follow and observe on the second one, she actually got engaged in helping us with the installation. She helped with the explanation to the family, on what it was, and how to use it. On the last one, she took over and said, ‘This is what this is, and this is how we are engaging and helping you out.’” Larsen says the shift of ownership and leadership was crucial.

 “Not only will it leave an impact for her as an individual, but she now knows who to reach out to now for resources. She, as a leader, can start addressing those needs from the inside out. We have left resources for her to impact her community in a positive way.”

 Professor Barthel was impressed by the leadership and skills his UVU team showed. “One of the most impressive aspects of this project was how this team of students transitioned from conceptualizing the process, to framing out a process using the instructional material they had learned in their foundational courses provided by our department faculty.  Once in Cambodia, they realized their envisioned project really was going to happen!”

 Alexis Geist hopes to make it happen again, and again, around the world. She is no longer pursuing PA school but says she will now instead focus on becoming an expert at grant writing.

 “I am passionate, of course, about the health of others. As a PA, I can only influence a limited number of people. As a grant writer, I will eventually help more than 100,000 people. What I saw changed my outlook on the world. What we did wasn’t even a drop in the bucket, and I want to make that drop.”

 Geist said she is confident in her new direction. She stepped out of her comfort zone to find her true passion, and “UVU got me on the right path.”

 Students wishing to be involved in future engaged learning experiences to Cambodia may email Professor Barthel at

 A project like this is always looking for extra funds and financial support to expand UVU’s capability to provide more resources to the people and families we serve in Cambodia. Those with the desire and capacity to provide financial support should contact Jim Demary at

I am passionate, of course, about the health of others. As a PA, I can only influence a limited number of people. As a grant writer, I will eventually help more than 100,000 people. What I saw changed my outlook on the world. What we did wasn’t even a drop in the bucket, and I want to make that drop.                                                                                                    Professor Barthel and team pose with UVU flag in front of a new latrine.                                                                                                           Professor Barthel and team teach in a crowded cambodian primary school.                                                                                                          Professor Barthel and team teach menstural cycle health with diagrams.                                                                                                          Two girls lean on the barred windows of the primary Cambodian school to lisen in on Professor Barthel's lecture.                                                                                                          UVU students teach public health on dirt Cambodian streets to a circle of small children.