Beyond Visas and Vaccines: Preparing Students for Domestic and Global Health Engagement
At campuses across the United States, scores of students are embarking on global health experiences in low- and middle-income countries. The desire to improve the health of poor communities while preparing for future health careers is often the main driver. The spotlight on domestic health issues also has fueled a resurgence of interest in underserved communities in the United States. Regardless of the destination, rigorous preparation is needed to ensure that the students' presence benefits the communities they aim to serve.
Development of mutually beneficial programs with host communities coupled with thoughtful preparation of students is essential to the future of these university programs but, more importantly, to achieve the goal of shared learning and capacity building across borders. US program leaders may not fully consider the potential risks that can occur to their programs from involving poorly prepared students, or these risks may appear largely theoretical. However, many experienced practitioners and their international collaborators can relate examples of damaged partnerships, adverse consequences on community structures, dangers to patient safety, and harmed professional reputations and credibility. Domestic health experiences do not require a visa or vaccines but bring students in contact with many of the same ethical, professional, and cross-cultural challenges as overseas endeavors.
Fortunately, best practices for preparing students to confront these challenges have emerged from years of experience in domestic and global contexts alike. It all begins with establishing institutional partnerships built on principles of reciprocity and respect. Through careful program design, universities can align missions, goals, and expectations to best serve all invested parties: local partners, students, faculty, staff, and the communities where they will be working. A second critical component is appropriate student selection. Matching student skills with partner needs can optimize benefits for both the host organization and student. Finally, universities can prepare students to navigate in cross-cultural settings in a professional and ethical manner through careful training.Just as negative experiences can have lasting negative consequences, the best ones can lead to strengthened partnerships; durable benefits for local and global communities; and optimal learning for students, their supervisors, and hosts.