Diversity and Democracy

Beyond Study Abroad: The Global Nature of Domestic Experiential Learning

Faculty have long recognized the importance of experiential learning opportunities (ELOs). Students, too, know that experiences outside the classroom are essential to our academic growth: to inspire us, to see whether the field is a good match for our interests, to align our expectations with reality. In this article, we share our reflections on ELOs that helped make our education at Allegheny College so robust. Two lessons stand out clearly.

The first lesson is that while many programs rely on a single major experience abroad, we don’t believe in the “go big or go home” model. Each of us had a multitude of ELOs that started early in our academic careers. Moreover, most of these ELOs were not “culminating” experiences but were scaffolded upon each other. We needed time to reflect critically on challenges that arose during these ELOs and to understand connections between our academic training and field experiences. In many cases, later experiences such as our senior projects would have been impossible if not for earlier experiences and reflection. The growth that resulted from these ELOs often influenced our professional trajectories.

The second lesson is that experiences do not have to be expensive or international to have deep meaning. Some of our ELOs were built into classes or work-study awards, and we identified others on our own. Although we were all global health studies majors, all of the ELOs we discuss in this article were completed in the United States. There is incredible power in understanding the global nature of domestic experiences and in recognizing the vast differences of health determinants and outcomes across populations, income strata, and cultures within our own country. “Global” at Allegheny College means “comprehensive,” “universal,” “large-scale,” and “interconnected,” not exclusively “international” or “overseas.” The ELOs we describe here helped us understand that our cultural knowledge is limited, and we cannot presume to know the “correct” way to approach health.

From Elissa Edmunds: Building Trust

I spent the summer of my sophomore year interning for a Christian ministry organization that worked alongside Native Alaskan villages to lower the suicide rates of Native Alaskan youth. The relationship between the ministry organization and the Native Alaskan communities was complicated. Historically, Christian missionaries were violent and oppressive toward Native Alaskan people. They stripped them of their culture, put children in boarding schools, required that they speak only English, and committed many other atrocities. This complex history fostered distrust and deep resentment of Christians. I found that this was a difficult space in which to work, and it required me to build trust both with the youth from the villages and with the organization.

Building trust meant different things depending on whom I interacted with. With the Gwich’in Athabascan youth, I needed to listen intentionally and to acknowledge and affirm their feelings. I heard their stories of grief, alcoholism in their families, and how the long winter affected them, and I accompanied them as they went canoe racing and dancing. To build trust with employees of the organization, I needed to respect their authority and be willing to follow their lead—even if I did not always agree with them.

The experience forced me to examine my cultural biases and beliefs and give up many comforts. I learned to navigate between the cultures of the Gwich’in Athabascan people and the organization. My academic training helped me conceptualize the interconnected relationships in which I was enmeshed. I learned to listen better and take seriously the needs and opinions of others.

Working in partnership with the Gwich’in Athabascan people provided me with a foundational understanding of how to build the trust needed to work in different communities. During college, I became increasingly aware of domestic health disparities between black and white maternal and child health outcomes. I learned about the health benefits that accrue to breastfed infants throughout their lives and the massive differences in breastfeeding rates between black and white women. For my senior project, I wanted to talk with black women to find out directly what factors contributed to these stark differences. I knew that these conversations would be difficult; I didn’t want to sit in judgment of women who were working hard to make the best lives for their babies. I had to prove to them that they could trust me with their stories. The trust-building skills I learned working with the Gwich’in Athabascan people were as essential as the technical interview skills I learned in class to conduct my research.

From Oreill Henry: Peer-to-Peer Learning

I participated in a number of ELOs as a student, but I want to share one experience that significantly influenced my professional work as a community health educator. During my junior year, I worked at an after-school program in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. My job was to help students between the ages of eight and twelve with homework and provide activities for them in a safe, supervised environment.

One student, whom I’ll call Charlie, struggled to understand basic fourth-grade math concepts. He simply couldn’t get through the material. It wasn’t for lack of trying; Charlie wrestled with his math each afternoon. Over time, he disclosed to me that he hadn’t told his parents he was falling behind and didn’t want to ask them for help because they were so busy and worked late shifts. He shared some of the complex issues of food and housing insecurity that weighed on his family and other concerns that he faced, including being bullied at school. Charlie was struggling in every facet of his life and felt he had to “go it alone” to avoid adding to his family’s burden. After we worked together for a while, I offered to reach out to his parents and teachers, who were very supportive. With that renewed support, Charlie’s anxieties eased, and he began to perform better on math assignments.

While this experience alone was meaningful, the real learning, for me, happened just after that. Charlie was so excited about understanding his math that he then worked with other students in the after-school program to make sure that they too mastered their math concepts. He encouraged the students to use math as an enjoyable activity and not just as homework to be rushed through. We received updates showing that those students enrolled in the program, on average, improved on their state exams from the previous year. Moreover, I witnessed a significant change in attitude toward math in the kids in that after-school program. Listening to and engaging with one student mobilized the power of peer-to-peer learning, which changed the attitudes and behaviors of the group overall.

I recently worked as a supervising health educator at Ryan Health, a network of community health centers in New York. My team’s goal was to combat lifetime rates of HIV acquisition in communities of color in the Bronx. Many of our clients faced economic and family issues similar to Charlie’s and also felt a similar need to go it alone. The peer mentoring that I observed with Charlie years ago provided me with a strategy to magnify our impact working with our highest-risk clients. We designed a pilot project to teach safer sex behav­iors to a team of individuals who were willing to be peer educators within the MSM (men who have sex with men) com­munity. We maximized information dissemination through this approach, showcasing the impact of peer-to-peer networks. For me, Charlie’s story and my work with peer educators at Ryan Health highlight how seemingly small, local experiences can be impactful in unex­pected ways over time.

From Emily Kovalesky: Advocacy for Health Care Access

In July 2017, the summer before my senior year, I found myself walking down the steps of the Russell Senate Building behind US Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and a member of his senior staff. The three of us were delivering pizzas to the group of protestors with disabilities who were camped outside the building, fighting to maintain health insurance for lifesaving care. The protestors started cheering as the senator walked out. This moment was one of the most memorable of my academic career. It showcased the vital need for advocacy, especially for vulnerable populations, and the importance of protecting people’s rights to access health care.

I was in Washington, DC, for an internship with the American Association of People with Disabilities, working with Senator Casey to defeat efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. This internship positioned me within the context of Washington politics, which had a language and culture unlike anything I had encountered before. Constituents, my fellow individuals within the disabled community, and staffers like me shared their lived experiences with the representatives. This experience pushed me completely out of my comfort zone but taught me how to incorporate my interdisciplinary training in systems thinking, communication, science, history, and ethics into actionable health policy.

When I returned to school after my internship, my perspective on academics had changed. While I once wanted to pursue medicine, I now wanted to work on health care advocacy. After graduation, I furthered my learning as a member of AmeriCorps VISTA, helping people at rural health clinics in Maine gain access to health insurance and care. I have begun to consider careers in advocacy, policy, and even law. For now, though, I am pursuing my Master of Public Health degree to expand my knowledge about health systems and social determinants of health, in hopes of helping to create a world where everyone has access to health care.

Conclusion

At each stage of our academic careers, we engaged in practical experiences that allowed us to reflect on what we learned in class. We hope the stories we told here highlight that it is not the money spent or the distances traveled that make experiential learning powerful. The power comes from our willingness to open ourselves up to the experiences of others, to contextualize these experiences, and to learn ways to take responsible action to improve our communities when and where we can.


Elissa Edmunds has a BA in Global Health Studies from Allegheny College (2018) and MA in Strategic Communication from American University (2019). Oreill Henry has a BS in Global Health Studies from Allegheny College (2016). Emily Kovalesky has a BS in Global Health Studies from Allegheny College with Minors in Biology and Psychology (2018) and is a Master of Public Health Student at the University of Southern Maine.

 

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