A world of good: COPH professor and colleagues publish article on public health study abroad programs

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Laura Rusnak, a USF College of Public Health (COPH) faculty member, along with some of her fellow COPH colleagues, recently published a paper entitled, “Integrating diverse study abroad opportunities into public health curricula: Three distinct strategies to address common barriers.”  The article was published in the March 2019 edition of Frontiers in Public Health.

“In public health, we know that a global health perspective is required to prepare students for emerging challenges,” explained Rusnak. “I was inspired by my fellow undergraduate faculty colleagues who were developing study abroad courses around the world. As a department, we began to offer more and more opportunities for students to gain the skills they’ll need in our global public health workforce.”

From 2014 to 2018, the number of USF undergraduates who participated in a public-health focused study abroad program increased 275 percent, noted Rusnak. Today, the COPH offers undergraduates programs in Japan, London and Canada. “I figured other public health programs could benefit from the lessons we learned throughout this growth process,” said Rusnak, explaining how the journal article came to be.

Students traveling to Japan—one of the healthiest nations in the world—visited an elementary school where children serve themselves lunch, brush their teeth after eating and clean the school daily. (Photo by Olivia Nguyen)

Rusnak and her colleagues came up with strategies to circumvent common barriers students and universities face when they attempt to set up study abroad programs.

What advice does the article give?

  1. Add public health coursework to already-established study abroad programs. According to Rusnak, this allows for seamless planning and logistics; it also offers a level of security and stability.
  2. Use an academic travel company. Such a company can take care of the budget, logistics and administrative tasks.
  3. Utilize existing international/university partnerships. Rusnak and her colleagues advise universities to look at connections made through professional conferences, sabbatical-host universities, Fulbright programs, etc.

The study abroad programs the COPH offers to undergraduates are all short term, lasting just several weeks or less. Rusnak says the short duration is intentional.

“Of all the barriers to studying abroad, one of the biggest is cost,” said Rusnak, who explains that many students go to school while working full time. “Limiting travel time reduces this barrier. As long as students engage with course content before and after travel, we’ve found that we’re able to ensure learning outcomes while increasing access.”

In addition to their increased global outlook, Rusnak notes that studying abroad has other benefits as well, including increasing a student’s career focus, goals and future employability.

Sabrina Saravia poses during a tour of London’s Deptford Creek. In the summer of 1858, London experienced the “Great Stink,” a period when a foul odor rose from the River Thames and choked Londoners. The Thames had long been a dumping ground for human excrement. “A civil engineer named Joseph Bazalgette created a sewage system to rid the waste in the river, cleanse the air and improve life for Londoners,” said Saravia. “It’s a system that’s still used today in this creek.”  (Photo courtesy of Saravia)

“Learning about global issues in the classroom is like opening a door,” Rusnak said. “Studying abroad is like kicking open that door. Being immersed in a culture and learning about public health issues in another country changes students forever. Being able to facilitate and witness that transformation is incredibly rewarding.”

Read more about COPH undergraduate study abroad programs here.

Watch a video about the undergraduate Quebec City study abroad program here.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health

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