Exploring public health around the world without leaving home

Global Health Virtual Practicum collaboration with Goshen College

A woman smiling on a Zoom video call

For two hours each Saturday morning, a group of young adults from around the world gathers on a Zoom video call to learn about and discuss issues related to global public health.

This year-long Global Health Virtual Practicum is a partnership between Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Goshen College that helps to replace the international travel experiences young adults would have had in a year without COVID-19.

Due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, MCC made significant, temporary reductions to three of its international young adult programs: Serving and Learning Together (SALT), International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) and Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN), a partnership with Mennonite World Conference.

MCC was looking for ways to provide opportunities for young people to engage with the work of MCC and its partner organizations, despite pandemic limitations.

At the same time, Goshen College was looking for alternatives to their Study-Service Term (SST) program that wouldn’t necessitate travel but would give their students a cross-cultural experience and global perspective.

“The idea came to pilot a course that could speak to both these needs and to the moment when all of us are thinking about COVID-19 and public health generally,” said Paul Shetler Fast, MCC global health coordinator. Fast is teaching the course, along with Wade Snowdon, SALT coordinator.

Not your typical global public health class

According to Fast, this isn’t a typical global public health class offered at most universities, where the focus is usually on the formal structures of health systems, infectious diseases and basic epidemiology.

“This class is really built around the ethics, principles and values of MCC and our partners,” explained Fast. This includes looking at how things like racism, histories of colonialism, oppression, violence and war all play into global public health.

A man talking on a Zoom video call
Paul Shetler Fast, MCC global health coordinator, teaches the virtual class by highlighting MCC's partners and their work around the world. Fast is teaching the course, along with Wade Snowdon, SALT coordinator. MCC photo/Paul Fast

By connecting with MCC partners around the world, students are exploring how MCC’s emphasis on local perspective and ownership is important for fighting systems of oppression and social determinants of health. “It allows individuals to, instead of just learning basic concepts, to go deeper and move from the theoretical to the actual,” said Snowdon.

Fifteen students initially enrolled in this course – 10 related to MCC and five Goshen College students. Goshen College is the accrediting institution, so students have the option of earning credit for the course if they choose. This fits well with the new public health major that Goshen College began offering in fall 2020.

“In a year when many students who were planning to complete their international education credits outside of Goshen, Indiana, had to change their plans, this course offers students an opportunity to learn in an interdisciplinary setting with others from around the world,” said Brianne Brenneman, assistant professor of public health at Goshen College.

With folks calling in from around the world, time zones made finding a time to meet a challenge. They settled on meeting at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time which means students on the U.S. West Coast joining at 6 a.m. and a participant from Republic of Korea (South Korea) calling in at 10 p.m.

There is no requirement that students have a public health or medical background to participate. In fact, the diversity of backgrounds, geographic locations and experience levels is a strength of the class, according to Snowdon.

“It’s been very enlightening for us, including ourselves as instructors, to learn from these students,” said Snowdon. “For students to hear some of those differences and reflect on them has been valuable for everyone.”

From foundational info to complex realities

The first semester of the program, which began in October 2020, focused on building foundational knowledge, largely through case studies with MCC partner organizations.

For example, during a session on mental health, they heard from a partner organization in Afghanistan. When talking about criminal justice, they connected with partners in Canada and the U.S. And they heard from partners in Haiti about water and sanitation programs.

A group of people sitting on benches
Konbit Peyizan is one of the MCC partners featured in the global health practicum. Konbit Peyizan works with remote farming communities in the Artibonite region of Haiti. This 2019 photo, taken before COVID-19, shows a traveling malnutrition clinic they hosted. These women received resources and education about how to restore and maintain their child’s health. Local nurses checked up on mothers every two weeks and accompanied them in providing a healthy upbringing. MCC photo/Christy Kauffman

“While students may be sitting on their living room couch each Saturday morning while they learn, they are immersed in case studies that ask them to work together to improve population and community health,” said Brenneman. “This is a unique learning opportunity for our students as they wrestle with questions about what faith and community-based work means for them.”

The second semester is currently focusing on group evaluations and participatory methods of evaluation. Each student is assigned a project with an MCC partner, and they are interviewing their partners and reviewing project plans and reports currently being implemented. The course will conclude with students working one-on-one to support individual MCC partners.

“This year has focused people, maybe more than ever, on public health, its importance and what it can do,” said Fast. “It’s been really important for this class to connect that energy and this urgency to why this matters, how MCC works and how our partners think about these issues.”

That means moving beyond just science and vaccines and technical problems. “These are often social problems that come out of social histories of oppression and inequality and colonialism,” explains Fast. The class is exploring whose voice gets prioritized as public health systems are built and how power dynamics play into funding. Students are seeing this play out in real time with how COVID-19 vaccine access is working around the world.

“We’re pushing the conversation through the point of easy answers to complex realities,” said Fast. “We have to recognize these deep problems and work to the point of practical interventions that then work against those systems of oppression.”

Like all organizations, MCC recognizes that there is always more to learn. “We’re not saying MCC has all the answers, that we haven’t made mistakes and have had to learn from them,” Snowdon said. “But even that in itself is an anticolonial approach, knowing that perfectionism is a colonial thought process.”

One of the goals of this course is to address existing lines of inequality in the course itself by opening up access to people who may not be able to participate in traditional international study abroad or service programs.

“As more and more countries are making it difficult to get visas, this allows MCC a unique opportunity to continue to share knowledge across boundaries and for that mutual transformation to happen,” said Snowdon. “It’s not always about people having to go to a place to make a difference but learning how they can use those skills in their own communities as well.”

Course helps Goshen’s nursing students who can’t travel

This course came at a time when Goshen College is seeking to make SST – a requirement for graduation – more accessible to all students. Schools are finding a higher percentage of students are unable to do their traditional study abroad programs for a variety of reasons, including undocumented students and nontraditional students or those with family obligations.

“Everywhere we go for SST we go because of strong partners on the ground who make our community-engaged learning possible,” said Jan Bender Shetler, director of international education at Goshen College. “MCC has a network of grass-roots level projects all around the world. Giving our students access to interact in a meaningful way, even virtually, is an amazing opportunity for our students.”

Two women sitting and talking
MCC partners in Afghanistan have been part of the case studies in the global health practicum. MCC supports this community-based mental health project for people with psychosocial disability, their families and communities in Herat, Afghanistan. The name of MCC’s partner in this work, and the names of the people pictured, are not provided for security reasons. (Due to COVID-19, all project staff are equipped with facemasks and hand sanitizer. Whenever necessary, the project also provides these materials for clients.)  Photo courtesy of partner

According to Jewel Yoder, chair of the Goshen College nursing department, this course is invaluable for nursing students who can earn their SST credit related to healthcare without having to travel abroad or interrupt their nursing plan of study. This is particularly important for their many nursing students who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status which makes international travel impossible.

“At Goshen College, nurses are trained to respect and honor the holistic nature of human beings,” said Yoder. “Learning about global health through the lens of public health and MCC will help increase their level of cultural intelligence and allow them to enter into dialogue about health from a very broad perspective.”

Personal perspectives

Joe Wheeler, a senior biochemistry major at Goshen College, was originally planning to travel to Senegal with the SST program last summer before it was canceled. Wheeler, who is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had a positive experience participating in SALT in Cambodia in 2018-2019, so he was excited when the opportunity arose to take this course.

“This experience [with SALT], coupled with the prospect of learning about the systemic injustices underlying health inequities alongside cohorts from around the world, got me excited to sign up for the practicum,” he said. “I have not only learned about public health in terms of how MCC works around the world, but I have also gained different perspectives about how people view public health and their observations from countries around the world.”

Wheeler, who is particularly interested in environmental health, says taking this course has broadened his view of public health and made tangible the prospect of pursing a master’s degree in public health while also looking at a longer service term with MCC.

Ariannis Hines, from Philadelphia, is one of the young adults who was supposed to be participating in SALT this year. Although disappointed that she had to delay her SALT service, she is thankful for the class and looks forward to hopefully going to Nicaragua with SALT in the near future.

“It has united me with a community of people who want to participate in public health, and learn more about the current state of affairs, the field of study, and where we all may be able to fit in,” she said. 

"This class is like a nutritious meal every Saturday that keeps me hungry for service and social justice. It keeps me going in this year when everything else is pretty messed up."

Ariannis Hines

With the success of this pilot program, MCC is hoping to expand the class to allow more young adults to participate.

“It’s a great partnership where our visions and goals all seemed to align on the same path and to creatively work together,” said Snowdon. “MCC is always looking for opportunities to collaborate especially with our Anabaptist educational institutions. Although it was ideal to pilot it during COVID-19, we see that it has potential to hopefully meet more needs down the road in various institutions.”

If you’re an educational institution that would like to talk with MCC about possibilities for a similar course, contact MCC at mailbox@mcc.org.