May 7, 2018

NHS Sends Seniors Overseas Through the Global Health Practical Experience Abroad

Each fall, seniors majoring in global health in the School of Nursing and Health Studies (NHS) conduct field research or assume policy-based internships in countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America as part of the annual Global Health Practical Experience Abroad.

The program, a mandatory undertaking for global health majors, serves as a senior capstone in the Department of International Health and grants students the opportunity to conduct research projects in conjunction with NGOs, universities, and health ministries in foreign countries. 

“It’s an opportunity to apply the curricular skills they’ve acquired over the past three years and develop an understanding of providing culturally sensitive services in an international health setting," explained Lisa Waldo, internship abroad coordinator in the Department of International Health.

Over the course of the semester, students work alongside their respective research institutions as well as biostatisticians, translators, and drivers to navigate logistical challenges and produce their final research products.

Assessing Ground Reality

In contrast to some study abroad programs, the Global Health Practical Experience Abroad does not always require students to provide a detailed overview of their research topics or internship opportunities prior to departure.

“Typically, students wait until they arrive in country to assess what the ground reality is there,” said Waldo. “The extent to which they determine what they will work on before they go, it varies. There are some places where there is a pretty specific research priority.”

According to Waldo, students interested in nutrition often work alongside researchers at the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, India. Those seeking a broader research pipeline, however, might gravitate towards Ghana or Tanzania, where investigations tend to cluster around infectious and non-communicable diseases, maternal child health, and health systems.

“We have long-standing institutional relationships in several countries,” stated Waldo. “WHO [World Health Organization] country office placements may vary from year to year, depending on what students’ interests are, what students’ skills are, and if there’s a need with the host institution.”

‘Member of the Team’

Once students arrive in-country, they work with an assigned preceptor and other team members to begin the research process. Throughout the semester, students are tasked with maintaining a weekly blog to document the experience.

“It’s a really good gauge of how things are going,” said Waldo. “We hope, and we think, that it’s also helpful for them to be there and reflect on going through this experience in real time.”

As a family and reproductive health intern at the WHO Regional Office for Africa based in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, Laura Chant (NHS’18) found that the Global Practical Experience Abroad contributed greatly to her professional development.

“The members of the Family and Reproductive Health Cluster taught me a lot about how to best approach family and reproductive health issues, and my supervisors emphasized the importance of my learning,” said Chant. “They went out of their way to get to know me and my interests, which made me feel like an actual member of the team.”

Life After Georgetown

Reflecting on her semester at the National Institute for Medical Research in Korogwe, Tanzania, Rachel Smith (NHS’18) noted that global health majors build a robust theoretical foundation prior to embarking on the practical research experience.

“In terms of practical knowledge, our Research Methods class junior year was really important for conducting all aspects of the research project: from the proposal, to using STATA statistical software, to the actual report itself,” explained Smith. “We also had a Community Based Learning (CBL) class in which we discussed going abroad quite a bit and the different issues we could potentially encounter.”

“These classroom experiences prepare them very well academically for their research semester abroad and enable them to pursue their own, independent research projects,” added Myriam Vuckovic, director of undergraduate studies for the Department of International Health.

Chant also found that her abroad experience resulted in the confidence to make a major decision for life after Georgetown.

“Starting in September 2018, I will be serving with the Peace Corps as a health extension volunteer in Benin,” said Chant. “It is thanks to the Practical Experience Abroad that I learned not only what I wish to do with my future, but what it is I am capable of.”