Collaborative Partnerships for Transformational Experiential Learning Opportunities
To many students who want to enter into the fields of public health, medicine, and social justice, especially when it relates to research or academia, it can be intimidating. Veronica Varner, who graduated from UCSB last Spring, admits she felt some imposter syndrome. “You can think your voice isn’t as important.” And Sean Sugai, a third-year UCLA student said that he had this “misconception that research is in a lab or that it’s very much independent work”.
What changed Veronica and Sean’s perception was getting that hands-on experience through the Women’s Health, Gender and Empowerment Center of Expertise (WHGE COE) Internship Opportunities Program . Every year, partner organizations across the U.S. and in low and middle income countries offer internships that are incredibly valuable experiential learning opportunities for UC Global Health Institute Student Ambassadors.
The Power of Experiential Learning
“Hands-on experience is such a powerful form of education,” says Dr. Melissa Smith COE Deputy Director, who oversees the program in collaboration with Stephanie Sumstine, WHGE-COE coordinator. “Being able to provide that for undergraduates early in their academic journey opens up their horizons.”
For Veronica, her work with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) on dissemination papers from a Google Ads Abortion Access Study helped her discover her knack for distilling complicated information into easily digestible formats for the public (such as through this infographic she created). Sean--who worked as an intern with UC Santa Barbara’s collaboration with the Latinx and Indigenous Migrant COVID-19 Response Task Force learned that research was a team effort as he found a community among the researchers, community members, and his fellow interns.
Shirelle Mizrahi, an MPH student at UCLA, who worked with Durbar Mahila Smanwaya Committee—an India-based organization focusing on the health and well-being of sex workers—was exposed to the very important practical elements of research: research coordination, IRB submissions, and coordinating with local research councils (in this case the Indian Council for Medical Research).
Working to Decolonize Global Health
One area that is also essential to the WHGE COE internship program is the decolonizing approach to global health, which challenges the traditional white, U.S. and European-led approach which has historically been top-down and paternalistic. Likewise, the approaches and interventions historically dominated by U.S. and European-led global health initiatives have been informed by methodologies rooted in inequality and systemic racism. We see and experience the consequences in action today through the allocation and access to funding and education mechanisms globally. Rather than continuing to reinforce unequitable systems, partnerships through this particular internship opportunity are intentionally horizontal, collaborative, and grounded in social justice.
Sean expresses how he experienced this. Whether the collaborator he worked with was a physician or a community stakeholder, he says, “the different levels of knowledge and expertise came together under one common goal around health equity.”
Value to Community Partners
WHGE COE has found that partner organizations receive equal value from the students’ participation. They know that the students from the UCGHI Student Ambassadors Program are going to be passionate, driven, and highly qualified.
This was expressed during a Fall virtual gathering of all 11 interns from the 2021 cohort, their internship mentors and faculty liaisons, where students shared their experiences. Community partners and mentors also had a chance to share their gratitude to the interns. Jennifer Ko, Project Director and Veronica’s ANSIRH mentor had this to say about collaborating with students, “[Veronica] was an integral part of working with us [at ANSIRH]...she was able to really help support our dissemination and outreach efforts.”
Shirelle’s faculty liaison, Dr. Dallas Swendeman, expressed how she and her fellow interns really thrived given the challenging circumstances, “They demonstrated a lot of initiative and resourcefulness, which was really needed...for this kind of remote experience.” And Sean’s mentor, Trevor Aldridge , expressed (to Sean and his co-intern Maite), “you really positively impacted the Task Force and impacted my life.”
And now a new cohort of students will have the chance for a transformative experience with the WHGE COE Internship Opportunities program.