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New Minor Explores Challenges of Global Health

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November 21, 2005

As the avian flu continues to make headlines worldwide, people are recognizing the importance of public health programs in the effort to understand, control and prevent infectious disease. Northwestern responded two years ago by creating the Global Health minor in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“The undergraduate minor in Global Health at Northwestern is unique,” said Dévora Grynspan, director of International Program Development.

The minor builds on several new courses and four study abroad programs in public health developed since 2001. Students can apply for the opportunity to study international public health systems in Mexico, China, France and South Africa.

Students completing the Global Health minor are required to study abroad, although students who are not pursuing the minor can also apply for the trips. Applicants are chosen based upon their GPA, academic or professional reason for going abroad for public health and relevant background, coursework or experience.

“We have students who are not only interested in health or medicine but also bioethics, public policy and even medical reporting,” said Grynspan.

Some students who have gone abroad with the program have even decided to enroll in the minor upon their return.

“I didn’t really know what public health was,” said Shauna Gardino, senior in anthropology, who studied in Mexico and now plans to pursue a master’s degree in the field. “But the trip definitely solidified my interest.”

While abroad, students immerse themselves in intensive language study, courses on the country’s culture and seminars dedicated to public health.

Each country’s trip is designed differently. Public Health in Mexico is an eight- week summer trip hosted by the medical school at Universidad Panamericana. Students stay with host families in Mexico City. They travel to important cultural sites and go to the Tlapa region to learn more about rural Mexico. They also visit hospitals and clinics related to their coursework and research.

Public Health in China is also an eight-week summer program hosted by Tsinghua University in Beijing and Capital University of Medical Sciences. The program introduces students to health issues in China along with a focus on Chinese traditional medicine. In addition to visiting historical sites and museums, students go on excursions to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. They also take trips relevant to their course work, including visits to a rural clinic and herb gathering in the local mountains.

Public Health in Europe is scheduled during the fall semester and hosted by Sciences Po (Institut d’Etudes Politiques). Students are housed with host families or in dormitories in Paris and conduct supervised research on health policy and present their projects to students and faculty at the end of the semester. They also participate in excursions to the World Health Organization in Geneva, the Ecole Nationale de Santé Publique in Renne and other relevant sites in and around Paris such as the Institut Pasteur. Students focus on European health care systems and health policy.

The trip to South Africa takes place during spring quarter and is designed for students interested in health policy, public health and the country of South Africa in general. It is hosted by Stellenbosch University, located just outside of Cape Town in the wine-growing region. Students focus on HIV/AIDS issues in Africa and the political economy of the country. They also visit health clinics, health related agencies and other sites of historical and political significance.

Grynspan said that planning the new programs meant asking a lot of questions about which cultures to explore and the origins of major diseases and health issues.

“We’re always wary when creating new study abroad programs because you need a minimum number of students to go,” said Grynspan. “So far, we’ve had no problem. Our programs are not only popular with our students, but we get tons of calls from students all over the country who would like to go.”

The programs are so popular that the South Africa trip has been filled through 2006 and applicants are already being interviewed for 2007. The addition of the Global Health minor has been equally popular. Only in its second year, Northwestern currently has 88 minors.

“I was pre-med and wasn’t enjoying the coursework, so I decided to explore other areas,” Gardino said. “And this turned out to be a good fit.”

In addition to mandating study abroad, the minor also requires students to complete three core courses from a list of five options. The courses examine global bioethics, international health organizations, global health and gender, international violence and public health. Students must also take four elective courses and are encouraged to conduct public health research before and after going abroad.

Gardino researched issues of environmental health and children in Mexico City.

“I came up with a questionnaire and interviewed families who had children to find out what they perceived as being a risk to their children,” she explained. “I discovered that the parents were aware of obvious health risks, but there are some things they don’t even think twice about, like smoking.”

The main goal of the program is for students to understand the context of global health. Grynspan explained that we cannot have an impact without first going to the root and addressing the factors involved in the spread of disease in different countries and regions.

“We cannot assume that HIV/AIDS can be treated the same way in Africa as in San Francisco,” she said. “We have to understand the specific gender, cultural, economic and political issues in order to solve the problem.”

As the program grows, Grynspan said, the Office of International Program Development plans to add more countries for study abroad. The next destinations to be added will be Uganda and Brazil, followed by Eastern Europe and Turkey.

“We’re thinking of developing a program in the Serbia-Croatia area to learn about what happens during times of war when health systems collapse," she said. "What happens to mental health? We also want to develop a program in Turkey to better understand health issues in an Islamic country.”

Students who have returned from their trips say it makes them see things differently.

“I’m definitely more aware of worldwide events now,” said senior Marianne Buckley who went to France. “Things that I didn’t think mattered before, I notice now because I see how we all have a connection.”

The Global Health minor and study abroad programs are open to students in any discipline or college. Those wishing to learn more can contact the Office of International Program Development at international@northwestern.edu.