By Christina Amutah
Learning about a new culture, seeing how healthcare is done in another country, and building your language skills are just some of the potential draws of a global health experience. If you are amongst the many people considering one, keep reading for what I suggest you should think about as you make your choice.
A big thing to consider when choosing a global health experience is language. Although you will have a more enriching and productive experience if you speak the dominant language of the place you’re going, a language barrier should not stop you from choosing a location. However, it is something worth thinking about when considering what kind of activities you will do. Please note, it’s important to look at more than the “official language” of the country. For example, in many African countries where English is an official language, most residents primarily speak a local language or some sort of creole language. To assuage challenges, try to see if the experience includes language training.
Beyond your language skills, it is key to examine your other abilities. While you may want to provide direct healthcare, are you qualified to do that? The general rule of thumb is this: don’t do anything abroad that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in the US. While many developing nations have a scarcity of healthcare professionals, unqualified foreigners should not be filling that gap. Also, be realistic about what you can get done in the amount of time you have. Conducting an independent research project may not be possible in a two-week trip, so that time might be better spent just observing.
3. The Organization
With thousands of organizations offering global health opportunities for students, it is very important to look closely at the organization you are considering. Some questions to ask:
- Is it a massive NGO or a small initiative?
- Are the program staff all foreigners or is it run by actual natives of the country?
- Where does the funding come from?
- How long has it been around?
- What do previous participants say about it?
If you can not find enough information to answer these questions, then you may want to reconsider that organization.
A major aspect of choosing an experience will be money. There are a wide variety of funding and fee structures for global health experiences. If you’re interested in an experience that is fully funded (free), then you’ll have to look into competitive programs. This link lists many paid international opportunities. These usually require a lengthy application and only take a few students. After these, the next cheapest option is usually to go through an academic study abroad program at your university. Usually a semester study abroad should cost the same as a semester at your home institution. Then you would only have to budget extra for flights. Companies like IES and CIEE all offer themed semesters that focus on global health. A global health experience is often not cheap, but if you are persistent there is usually a way to do it without breaking the bank.
5. The Bigger Picture
The final thing I hope you consider when choosing a global health opportunity is something that many people overlook: the bigger picture. While it is tempting to only focus on your experience and what you will gain from it, I challenge you to consider the ethics of your experience and what will happen after you leave. Will the people helped on the mission trip have access to follow-up care? Will the supplies you’re bringing actually be used? Will that cool education program you start actually continue? I challenge more people to preference activities that are locally-run, long lasting and genuinely impactful. Beyond making your experience more ethical, these sort of initiatives will often provide a more enriching and dynamic experience for you.
About the Author
Christina Amutah is a first year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania. Christina graduated from Howard University in 2016 where she studied Political Science and was involved in health education and health policy activities. After graduating, Christina spent a year in Botswana through a Princeton in Africa fellowship. During that year, she created health education programming for youth living with HIV and solidified her interest in global health. After that year, Christina returned to her hometown of Philadelphia and worked in a high school as a sexual health counselor and educator. She is interested in pursuing a career that blends medicine, global health and social justice.