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Students of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health’s India programs travel to West Bengal and Karnataka to research and gain knowledge of global public health topics.


“COVID-19,” says Professor Beth A. Virnig of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH), “has shown us how small the world really is.” This is one of the reasons why the school’s India programs, through which public health students actively engage in research, education and service, in West Bengal and Karnataka, seem all the more relevant. Virnig is a professor with the university’s health policy and management division and the director of its Research Data Assistance Center.

The university’s Public Health Experience program in Kolkata is funded by Pathways to Children, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis. The program offers students the opportunity to visit Kolkata for two weeks every year to work with the Jan Seva School, which provides education and health care to preschool children and mothers from lower income families in the city. The second India program is an exchange program with the Division of Public Health at Nitte (Deemed to be University) in Mangalore. The University of Minnesota students who join the Nitte Public Health Winter School program study and work in the rural coastal districts of Karnataka every year, thus gaining knowledge of global public health topics.

“Global programs are important,” says Virnig, “because they focus on the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to address health issues that transcend national boundaries and help students learn how to develop and implement solutions to health problems that require global cooperation.” While such global programs bring together vast networks of individuals and institutions, they are often also the product of people’s partnerships with friends and trusted colleagues. “The SPH work with Jan Seva [School] stems from my connection with Grace Strangis,” says Virnig. “Grace founded the Minneapolis-based not-for-profit called Pathways to Children, which is the major funding source for the operation of the Jan Seva School and community development project.” Strangis realized that, beyond its educational mission, a public health partnership would greatly benefit the school and its community. “We discussed at length how the School of Public Health could help Jan Seva and could benefit from a connection with Jan Seva,” adds Virnig. “Ultimately, we thought that it could be an ideal opportunity for students to learn from working with the school, and the school could benefit from the students’ energy and experience.” 

Similar connections are behind the University of Minnesota’s program with Nitte (Deemed to be University). “Our partnership with Nitte University began over 10 years ago through a friendship between SPH Professor William Toscano and Dr. Shetty at Nitte University in Mangalore,” says Virnig. “Nitte was looking to establish a school of public health and they asked us to work with them on the new project. Ultimately, from that friendship, the Nitte Winter School came about.” Virnig shares that the Winter School is a two- to three-week session in early January, which is taught in India and attended by Nitte’s Master of Public Health students and a group of five to ten University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health students. “All the students live on campus. They take classes together, visit field sites together, work on group projects, play soccer and establish lifelong friendships,”she adds.

Currently, much of the work of these partnerships has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our plans have been totally upended by COVID-19. We work intensively on site and at a distance throughout the year with the community health worker program at Jan Seva,” says Virnig. “ They identify their priorities and needs, and we help them achieve their goals through collaboration on projects, by providing training and assisting with creation of curriculum…. But, with COVID-19, the school has been shut down and many of the families have returned to their home villages. We, and they, are on hold.”

Under normal circumstances, University of Minnesota students travel to India for the programs.“Each year,” says Virnig, “a joint process is used to select the students who participate in the programs.” Three students participate in the Kolkata program and six to eight participate in the Nitte program. “The students complete an application that includes information about their prior global experience and their goals for their current training,” she continues. “We do not expect the students to be training for a career in global health. We look for students who are in good academic standing and show maturity, humility and a general interest in a true global experience.” 

The program work is complex, for a variety of reasons. Some of these complexities come down to simple cultural expectations. “U.S. graduate students find that they take some things for granted, such as high-speed Internet and air-conditioning. There are cultural differences in what is considered to be acceptable clothing and in the subtleties of communication,” says Virnig. It can also be difficult for U.S. students to see the kind of struggles lower income families face in some parts of Kolkata. “They can get overwhelmed by the amount of need relative to the amount they can do,” she adds. 

But what these programs can achieve, and have achieved, is quite important. “For Jan Seva, the biggest accomplishment can be seen in how far we’ve come with regard to community health programming,” says Virnig. “The first year we had students there, the focus was conducting a needs assessment with the mothers and teachers. The second year, we focused on collecting objective data and meeting with the fathers. Now, the school has an established community health worker program that has identified a list of target high-impact topics. We now focus on helping implement and evaluate programs.” 

Of course, the change happens in both directions, as it should be in an effective partnership. “From both programs, our students talk about how much they’ve changed,” says Virnig. “They consistently comment that the immersive experiences provide the extended time needed to shift their perspectives.” She adds that it is “gratifying to hear returning students talk about viewing public health through a different lens and that it helped them see the world through someone else’s eyes.” 

 

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.