Shay Kirwan, far right, and fellow student travelers at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Learning Face-to-Face in Mexico

On a trip to a community health clinic in Tlapa, Mexico, Carolyn "Shay" Kirwan (WCAS04) observed firsthand the challenges rural villagers in the state of Guerrero face in trying to get to the doctor. On a hot summer afternoon a diabetic woman arrived one month late for her checkup.

Georgina, a Mexican medical student, reminded the patient that her condition is serious and she should come to her monthly appointments. The patient explained that she had to wait until her pig was fat enough to kill and sell to earn money for the three-hour car ride and bus ticket to the clinic. Kirwan remembers the conversation vividly. "It really just put things into perspective," she says.

Kirwan gained a new perspective on global health care by studying in Mexico City through Northwestern's 2004 summer program Public Health in Mexico. Sponsored by Northwestern's Office of International Program Development, the program places students in home-stays and provides courses taught in English. Kirwan studied public health and Mexican culture and history at the Universidad Panamericana. She also studied Spanish and conducted research on obesity trends.

The program paired students with medical professionals but allowed students to direct their own projects. "I interviewed 30 control patients and 30 patients with obesity," she says, "to see if there was a correlation between obesity during childhood, adolescence and adulthood. It really gave me an opportunity to learn how to conduct and design experiments."

Kirwan, more accustomed to studying textbooks and memorizing facts for exams, learned in new environments while in Mexico. "We are so used to learning in the classroom and having our noses buried in books," she says, "but going abroad on a program like this teaches us to be open-minded and to take a break from studying just books. Instead, we look up and study people and our assumptions — the important things that don't get any attention when we're memorizing amino acids."

Kirwan also saw the disparities in Mexican health care. "There were just people everywhere," she says, "and not enough facilities for everyone." Kirwan interviewed patients lucky enough to be seen at the Mexico City nutrition center.

"They were excited that I was there," she says. "They'd say things like 'Thank you for being with us and for wanting to find out about us.'"

She also volunteered at a nursing home in Mexico City. Residents told Kirwan their versions of Mexico's complex political history and often spoke of their national pride. "They'd really light up and glow when they got to speak of 'their' Mexico and share stories from where they grew up," she says. "So often we overlook the rich cultural history of Mexico and see it only as a vacation destination."

Kirwan, who has joined the U.S. Air Force and plans to attend medical school, says her experience has motivated her to further explore public health and medical missions. "I'm curious now," she says. — H.K.

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