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Global Learning as My Call to Action for Social Justice
I grew up observing people, with their differing appearances, languages, successes, and struggles. I was born in Valencia, Venezuela, and immigrated to the United States at age eight. The transition between cultures led me to develop a sensitivity concerning social issues and an appreciation for solidarity and community.
I always knew I wanted to work in health care. I enrolled at Florida International University (FIU) in 2012 as a biology major with the aim of becoming a medical doctor. This seemed like the most direct way to make a positive impact on the people and communities I loved. However, my experiences with global learning at FIU—especially with the student organization GlobeMed—transformed my personal and professional goals as well as my approach to life.
A Global Perspective
Through FIU’s Global Learning for Global Citizenship initiative, all undergraduate students are required to take global learning courses and participate in global learning cocurricular activities. Courses such as Medical Anthropology and Anthropology of Globalization gave me a global perspective, helping me understand the features of and interconnections among health care systems around the world and serving as a call to action to contribute to others’ well-being. These courses also made me aware of how global health educational programs may do more harm than good. Students in some programs have been allowed to take responsibility for patients in developing countries without the proper expertise or training. These students have written prescriptions for inappropriate doses of medication, dispensed medications in pop-up clinics with no follow-up to monitor side effects or complications, and missed diagnoses of deadly diseases (Evert 2018). Having learned about these unintended consequences, I was wary of joining organizations that employ the “brigade model,” focusing on a Western standard of care and reinforcing the perception that health care can only be successful when administered by outsiders (Rassiwala et al. 2013).
In March 2013, Eric Feldman, program manager in FIU’s Office of Global Learning Initiatives, sent an email to global learning students about a student club called GlobeMed. The subject line read, “Interested in Global Health and Social Justice? Here’s a chance to found a new chapter at FIU and in your life!” I was encouraged when I read that GlobeMed aimed to “strengthen the movement for global health equity by empowering students and communities to work together to improve the health of all people around the world” (GlobeMed, n.d.). When I learned the organization was started by undergraduates, I was determined to be part of it. With Eric’s encouragement, I applied to establish a chapter of GlobeMed at FIU.
I believe that when students work together with access to appropriate resources, our idealism, energy, and determination can lead to positive change. I loved GlobeMed’s mission and the way it carries it out—by pairing universities with grassroots community organizations in developing countries to design and implement health improvement projects.
GlobeMed in Guatemala
In summer 2013, we began our partnership with Escuela de La Calle (EDELAC), a Guatemalan organization run by indigenous people, dedicated to improving the lives of at-risk children from K’iche’, Mam, and Q’anjob’al ethnicities in the city of Quetzaltenango, known locally as Xela (pronounced SHAY-la). I recruited members and assembled the student executive board for the FIU GlobeMed chapter. We held biweekly conference calls with our partners at EDELAC to discuss global health and social justice issues and to plan our collaborative project: starting and equipping a free health clinic in Xela. At FIU, we created a budget, developed a timeline, and raised funds for the clinic.
Of course, when three other GlobeMed members and I arrived in Xela in summer 2014, it was like the scales fell from our eyes. Situated over 7,500 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains, Xela has very poor water access. Because people have to travel so far to get water, many rely on contaminated water and contract diseases such as giardia and dysentery. Seeing this situation firsthand, we met with our local partners and collaborated on an action plan.
Since the clinic had a successful first year and was adequately equipped, we agreed that instead of continuing to raise funds for it, we would focus on a preventative health program for the following year. We collaborated with the clinic to put on a series of workshops to investigate gaps in community members’ health knowledge and disseminate effective strategies for disease prevention. We engaged with the larger Xela community to recruit experts to host the workshops and contact sponsors to provide necessities such as toothbrushes.
The feedback and our evaluation both showed that the workshops succeeded in educating community members, but access to water was still a challenge. The next year, with EDELAC’s help, we raised funds for water filtration systems for ninety families as well as vitamins for 150 children. GlobeMed has now partnered with EDELAC for more than five years, working on projects ranging from reproductive education to solar panel installation.
My Professional Path
Because of my experiences with GlobeMed, instead of going to medical school after I graduated in 2016, I chose to pursue a PhD in materials science and engineering with a focus on biomaterials. My goal is to work with others to develop low-cost medical devices that can have an immediate impact on people’s well-being in developing countries. I currently work on 3D printing for tissue engineering, and I believe that my involvement in GlobeMed has contextualized the broader impacts of my work. I hope to continue using this knowledge to become a more valuable part of the scientific, medical, and global community.
Evert, Jessica. 2018. “The Power and Perils of Interdisciplinary Education and Global Engagement.” Keynote address at the Association of American Colleges and Universities 2018 Global Engagement and Spaces of Practice conference, October 11.
GlobeMed. n.d. “Our Mission and Model.” http://globemed.org/mission.
Rassiwala, Jasmine, Muthiah Vaduganathan, Mania Kupershtok, Frank M. Castillo, and Jessica Evert. 2013. “Global Health Education Engagement: A Tale of Two Models.” Academic Medicine 88 (11): 1651–57.
Camila Uzcategui is a 2016 Graduate of Florida International University and a Doctoral Candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.