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Global Health Studies Takes Students Around the World

Global health studies at Northwestern is in five countries -- China, Mexico, France, South Africa and, as of March, Uganda.

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May 14, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- When Northwestern University created global health as a minor in 2004, it was required that students study overseas in the belief this would keep participation small.

"We were wrong," said Devora Grynspan, assistant to the President for international programs and director of International Program Development. "It was an incentive. People wanted to go abroad."

And they want to go now.

"I tell them, 'You can go when you're a junior,' and they say, 'I came [to Northwestern] so I could go to this program,'" Grynspan said.

Most of the students are in pre-med, but 4 in 10 are majoring in such fields as psychology, biology, education, journalism, economics and political science.

Global health studies at Northwestern is far ahead of programs at other universities, she said, with 250 minoring in it here. It's in five countries so far -- China, Mexico, France, South Africa and, as of March, Uganda.

The emphasis is different in each country. In China it's on epidemics and traditional medicine, in Mexico on medical research, in France on health policy, in South Africa on HIV/AIDS.

In Uganda, where many don't have TV or radio, students trained by local theater troupes go from place to place performing sketches to get the word out on sanitation, AIDS and other concerns.

Students take core courses in the minor on campus. Abroad, they absorb two public health courses specific to the country they're in. They also study the native culture and language.

For the South Africa program, a Stellenbosch University instructor named Pumlani Sibula will journey from Cape Town to Evanston next winter to teach the Xhosa language.

"He's so excited about seeing snow," Grynspan said.

When the students go to South Africa, Sibula will take them to the next level. "Eventually we'll do the same with Luganda," a major language of Uganda, she said.

The program has sponsored several conferences on campus and is raising funds for more. Speakers from around the world have explored such topics as pediatric and adolescent health, HIV/AIDS and the international arms trade.

The latter concern may not seem health-related at first glance.

"Most people think of plagues and epidemics," Grynspan said. "But one of the greatest expenses in public health is due to violence. We've developed a course that deals not only in guns but also in domestic and other kinds of violence."

Plans are to expand the public health program with further faculty involvement. Through short trips abroad, "the idea is to put [domestic and foreign] faculty together and explore opportunities for enriching our offering here," she said.

Recently Grynspan traveled to a hospital in Mexico with two dermatology faculty members. They saw conditions they never see here, such as leprosy, and there was talk of consulting on cases.

In May she and two other medical faculty members will go to South Africa for a visit that will focus on women's health.

Many students in global health come home wanting to do something about the woeful conditions they've witnessed.

For example, students who went to Mexico became involved with GlobeMed, a student-led group at Northwestern that aids grassroots health organizations in communities around the world. GlobeMed now is active on 16 campuses across the country.

Other students founded the Global Health Volunteer Fair, which brings in organizations that are looking for volunteers or interns. The second fair, in March, had representatives from the Chicago Global Donors Network, American Red Cross, Chicago Women's AIDS Project, New Orleans Health Department and 21 other groups.

Students also created a global health alumni network as a way to stay in touch and continue working together.

Alexandra Komisar, a junior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences who studied in Mexico last year, found it "a great, great experience, with a lot of integration with Mexican students."

Although the Mexican constitution guarantees healthcare for all, Komisar saw "tons of inequities" between the rural poor and wealthier citizens.

The program took Erika Jang, a senior in the School of Communication, to two countries last year -- South Africa in the spring and China in the summer.

"You can see how drastically different the approach in each country is toward public health," she said.

"With female AIDS patients who are pregnant, in South Africa they use anti-retroviral treatment. In China they just push for women to get an abortion."