Two hours outside the Dominican Republic’s capital city, students from the University of Houston observed a lone doctor examining a stream of patients from her home office with crumbling walls and paper files piled high. Mothers had walked miles to get their children checked.
“Her personality touched me,” Kayla Franklin, one of 20 students on the learning abroad trip last summer, said of the doctor. “You could tell she’s caring. If she can do anything to help them, she’s there, even if it’s out of her own pocket.”
The UH students had brought backpacks filled with supplies for the local children. The doctor began to cry.
“She was like, ‘People need these things,’” Franklin recalled. “I wouldn’t think a backpack could make that much difference.”
The trip is one of several UH study abroad opportunities for students interested in global health. The experiences typically combine learning and service, with students gaining invaluable insights they can apply to careers in the United States or around the world.
“Students really experience the challenges of providing health
care in resource-poor communities,” said Dr. Stephen J. Spann, UH vice president for medical affairs and founding dean of the College
Over the last few years, Spann has led trips of UH pre-med students to assist in a clinic he helped launch in rural Honduras.
“Students, to a person, say it’s a great learning experience,” Spann said. “Many of them aspire to go back. I think it helps a lot of them solidify their desire to study medicine.”
Spann, who grew up in Uruguay as part of a missionary family and worked as chief medical officer of a hospital in the United Arab Emirates, said lessons on global health and learning abroad opportunities will be integrated into the new UH medical school.
By visiting developing countries, medical students get a chance to hone their skills without the luxury of advanced technologies and abundant medications. They also gain cultural insights that can improve patient care in a diverse city like Houston.
“You don’t have all the diagnostic tests,” Spann said. “You have to learn how to depend on the medical history and physical exam. It teaches you to use your five senses.”
During the summer trip to the Dominican Republic, students focused on various aspects of public health, such as medical and environmental. They visited hospitals and clinics in poor and wealthier parts of town, met with doctors, took Spanish lessons, toured an organic coffee farm and hiked in a cloud forest. When they returned, they each did a presentation for their Global Health course.
“It was truly real-world practice, observation and education,” said professor Kayce Solari Williams, who led the trip with professor Rachel Afi Quinn of the UH women and gender studies program. “There’s nothing like getting out of a book and getting into what the book is all about.”
Solari Williams, who directs the undergraduate health program in the UH College of Education, said she organized the trip based on the experience she had there as a doctoral student—going beyond the “postcard view” of the Caribbean and understanding the underbelly of health problems.
“It forever changed me,” she said.
Franklin, a senior in the health program, said the Dominican Republic trip changed her too, especially seeing the need for more medical professionals there.
“Maybe I could be a nurse in the U.S. and make trips back to the Dominican Republic,” Franklin said. “I may want to be more of a public health official, but maybe I can be hands on, too.”
Solari Williams plans to add a trip to Puerto Rico next summer, while faculty from the College of Education’s school psychology program are working to offer students a summer practicum experience in Querétaro, Mexico.
“It’s the judgment part we’re trying to address so students don’t take a deficit perspective when working with families who are culturally different,” said professor Jorge Gonzalez, who’s teamed with program director Milena Keller-Margulis to launch the practicum.
From the UH Graduate College of Social Work, associate dean Luis Torres partnered with the Boston University School of Social Work to lead a trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico last summer. Students learned from local social workers about disaster response, addressing public health and environmental issues and the importance of self-care.
“These are people who have tremendous determination to do whatever they can to help others, but they also have the training and the skill,” said Torres, a Puerto Rico native who has led other trips to El Salvador, Bolivia, Mexico and Cuba through his course, Social Work: A Comparative Approach.
Torres’ colleague, professor Patrick Leung, organizes annual student trips to China.
For the students who study abroad, no matter the trip, the experiences leave a lasting impression.
As biology major Saad Sidiq said, he will never forget the long line of families he saw waiting for medical care outside a school-turned-free clinic in Honduras during his trip in May 2017. Sidiq and other volunteers with the Global Medical Brigades UH Chapter helped triage patients and take blood pressure, shadowed doctors and sang songs to remind kids to brush their teeth.
“We couldn’t treat all the patients that came,” he said. “We did our best.”
Sidiq, an aspiring doctor, said he hopes to take a similar trip again someday.
“The least I can do now is become more aware of helping the disadvantaged in my own community,” he said.