BY ANEESA NOORANI.
Photography by Yale Undergraduate Career Services.
1. What are the benefits of doing global health fieldwork? What types of experiences should students be seeking for exposure to the field?
My answer to this question stems from my doctoral degree in the sociology of education, where I studied how students from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds become motivated to engage in social change efforts in their communities. Global health is one type of social change effort; although the majority of global health fieldwork will happen outside of a student’s home community, I expect that they will develop some similar ways of thinking about power, inequality, politics, and culture. Students can learn many useful things in the classroom, but by working in the field, students learn how to engage with people across difference and gain a sense of how challenging it can be to translate classroom theory into on-the-ground practice. Understanding health through the lens of other people’s cultures and being able to communicate across cultures are fundamental parts of global health; fieldwork is an important way to learn how to do both. However, in order for students to understand health on an international scale, I think it’s important for them to also gain an understanding of the health challenges in their own backyard, including New Haven, their home community, and the US more broadly.
2. Global health is an extremely interdisciplinary field of study, ranging from medicine to economics to international relations. How do you advise students on the different paths one can take in global health?
The study of global health at the undergraduate level is something many universities are in the midst of developing; we’re at a unique turning point and there are exciting avenues that are opening up. In the past, it seemed that an advanced degree, such as a PhD or MD, was required for many global health positions; however, now that the number of undergraduate global health programs is increasing, we’re starting to see more opportunities for internships and entry-level positions in global health organizations. In addition, there are an increasing number of opportunities for undergraduate students, along with other health profession graduate students (e.g. nurses, physician assistants, doctors), to observe and ethically assist in clinical settings around the world. Ultimately, the path that students take into global health grows out of their own personal background; I see it as part of my job to elicit the story of what is motivating them to work in this arena. By starting our conversation at the ground level, I am more poised to help students put their passions into the right context.
3. What are some useful skills for someone working in the global health field, and how would a student go about learning those skills?
To begin, it’s essential for a student to understand themselves and where they come from. If students are not grounded in who they are when they walk into a room, they cannot even begin to engage meaningfully with others or be sensitive to the social context of each situation. But just as fish don’t know they are swimming in water, we sometimes can’t see our own cultural environment; indeed, everything around us simply seems “normal.” As such, we often need others to help us understand the water we’re swimming in. There are many courses in the humanities – anthropology, sociology, history, etc. – that can be a great starting point not only to help students understand other people’s cultures, but also to help them start the process of making their own familiar surroundings seem “strange.”
Students must also learn to listen. When students come to college, they are often encouraged to take leadership roles. My definition of leadership comes out of a community organizing paradigm, where leadership is defined as enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. In this way, leadership isn’t about taking the lead and having everyone else follow you. Instead, it’s about building relationships with the people around you, listening to their interests, needs, and resources, and then collaborating as a structured team in order to pool your resources towards the achievement of a strategic goal.
4. Occasionally students do global health fieldwork and have a negative take-away. What do you think students can do to avoid this and get the most out of their experiences?
In the field of global health, change is incremental, and students might get to the end of a summer experience and feel as though they have accomplished very little. But often it is this kind of “negative experience” that students learn from the most because it helps them put things in perspective. Students learn that change doesn’t happen quickly, that applying theory to practice is often harder than it seems, or that they were trying to apply their own paradigm of thinking and behaving to a new community with different norms and ways of approaching health.
That said, significant preparation should be done in advance to make these summer experiences the best they can be. Students should start by learning as much as possible about the community in which they are going to work, including its healthcare history along with its cultural, political, and religious norms. One useful way to begin this process is by connecting with Yalies who have traveled to these communities in the past. In addition, students should take steps to clarify their own cultural norms and biases and to prepare themselves to understand that their host communities have their own norms and ways of being. Finally, it is essential to have a supervisor or mentor on site and to set realistic expectations with them – including goals, limitations, norms for communication, and expected final deliverables – prior to embarking on the experience.