Undergraduates practice their passion abroad

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At USF, public health goes beyond the walls of the classroom or even the United States. Public health connects individuals from all different backgrounds and locations, and its reach is global. From Central America to the United Kingdom and even all the way to Northeast Asia, undergraduate students are experiencing public health first-hand, internationally.

Getting to know locale-specific practices, witnessing vastly different healthcare systems in action, and actually experiencing the history of the field itself are a few of the benefits of undergraduate study abroad, but the overarching takeaway for both students and instructors alike is that international experiences enrich and enlighten our future public health leaders.

“It broadens their perspective of the world,” said Dr. Kay Perrin, associate professor and assistant dean for undergraduate studies. “You’ve got to experience it: you can’t watch it on TV; you can’t hear about it – you’ve got to be there.”

USF’s College of Public Health was one of the first schools to offer undergraduate study abroad opportunities for its students. The programs have since grown in popularity from 7 to 900 students, said Perrin.

This summer, COPH instructors led three separate undergraduate programs of varying lengths to Panama, England, and Japan.

While USF has offered programs in Panama since 2006, this year was only the second time that undergraduate students were offered the opportunity to visit the country. This year’s program ran from May 9-16 and was led by instructors Tory Peek and Deidre Orriola.

panama group shot

The group showing off some Bull-pride in front of the Panama Canal. (Photo courtesy of usfcoph_studyabroad Instagram)

Peek said that he always encourages traveling whenever possible, especially for public heath students because it offers them such a valuable global perspective on health in general.

“So I figure what better way to encourage students to do that than to lead a trip on my own?” he said.

Alexa Pavan, a senior biomedical science and public health major, was one of the students selected for the trip. She said she wanted to go because she wanted a hands-on public health experience.

“It wasn’t a very long trip, but that whole week we were constantly immersed in the culture,” she said. “We were so amazed by everything we saw.”

Embera Village

The group visited the Embera village, which they traveled to by canoe. (Photo courtesy of Tory Peek)

Over the course of about a week, students visited health departments and research institutes, toured the Panama Canal and even spent time exploring the nearby mountain range. Both Peek and Pavan said their favorite experience was when the group traveled to an indigenous village of the Embera tribe, where, to gain access to the community, the group had to travel by canoe.

“It was so different for me,” Pavan said. “To see the way they lived was amazing.”

“You can talk about it, you can read about it– all this kind of stuff,” Peek said. “But to first-hand experience their culture like that is definitely enlightening.”

Panama offered a little bit of everything to students: The country provided a unique perspective on public health within a bustling city and gave insight into the health practices in small rural communities as well.

“It’s much different from the classroom, in that you learn just as much as you would in a classroom—sometimes maybe even more—from a different perspective within a very short amount of time,” he said. “I think it’s because you can see and feel the things that you’re learning in the classroom.”

The Panama trip ended on May 16, and two days later, instructor Laura Rusnak led a group of 10 students on a 10-day trip to Tokyo, Japan, to explore the differences between Japan’s public health system and the U.S.’s.

“We sometimes focus on what cannot be done but we’ve got to get out of that mentality. You need to see a different country and realize, ‘Of course it can be done’,” Rusnak said.

“The USF study abroad trip to Japan was a once in a lifetime experience that I’ll never forget,” said Daniel Kallies, a senior public health student. “I experienced the world like I never had before, and with this I learned many new lessons about life, Japan and its culture, and also public health.”

Japan students

Group photo of students and instructor Laura Rusnak at the Disaster Prevention Experience-learning Facility. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Kallies)

Because Japan has so many incredible health outcomes, Rusnak said it was a great place to take students. Every public health major and minor watches a documentary called “Sick Around the World.” In it, Japan, along with four other advanced democracies, is shown as a gold standard for public health practices.

“It’s different than the European model, which, as Americans, we tend to look to,” Rusnak said. “It’s an entire culture that really reinforces health outcomes.”

Among those differences are things like wearing masks to help prevent the spread of disease, connecting facilities for the elderly with those for young children and a huge disaster prevention program to combat the multitude of different natural disasters that are common threats.

Kallies and others in front of Fuji

Kallies (second from left) and other students in front of Mt. Fuji. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Kallies)

“They have to deal with tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, and much more, and because of this they have many policies and programs in place to minimize casualties and damage to communities,” Kallies said.

This trip featured a visit to the Disaster Prevention Experience-Learning Facility, where the group was able to experience disastrous events and learn about unusual ways to utilize common items, like making bowls out of newspaper. Kallies’ own passion for disaster prevention was sparked by this visit, and since returning, he’s declared a minor in homeland security and emergency management inspired by what he learned.

Some of the other highlights of the trip include the National Institute of Public Health, Buddhist shrines, St. Luke’s International Hospital, and a visit to Mt. Fuji.

“It’s religion, it’s culture, and it’s health—and it’s all bundled up into one,” Rusnak said. “We need to shatter the expectations of what is possible in public health. Undergrads and people who are going to be in the field, should see what can happen in a really different place.”

Lastly, this summer’s international undergraduate experiences ended with a month-long program in London that offered specific public health courses as well as other subjects like history and English that were open to all majors.

“I thought it was a really good opportunity, and I needed the classes for graduation, so I decided to do it,” said public health student Megan Rogers.

This trip is the most substantial amount of time she’s ever spent overseas, and the length of the program was one of the selling points for her.

“I honestly just don’t know what to expect,” Rogers said the week before she left the country. “I’m excited to see how things are different there.”

The program ran from June 22-July 23, and now that she’s returned, Rogers said it was a great experience.

london group old operating theatre

Megan Rogers (far right) and others flaunting Bull pride outside the Old Operating Theatre. (Photo courtesy of usfcoph_studyabroad Instagram)

“I believe it was the best thing I have done since I came to college,” she said.

The trip took place right after the historic decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, which means that on top of their public health courses, students learned a lot about the implications of Brexit on higher education, employment, work, and health care in the U.K.

While the U.K. is making current headlines, London is all too-familiar with making great historical strides in terms of public health. This historical relevance, Rogers said, is part of London’s appeal.

“The father of epidemiology lived in London,” Rogers said, “And there’s a lot of things that we can experience there that we can only read about here.”

Activities included things like visits to museums, the Chelsea Physics Garden, and the Old Operating Theatre, where students got to see how surgery was performed in the 1800s. Rogers said that she particularly enjoyed visiting OXFAM, an organization dedicated to ending global poverty, whose headquarters is in England.

London group photo

Group photo at the British Medical Association. (Photo courtesy of usfcoph_studyabroad Instagram)

It wasn’t all museums and tea time, though.

“[The trip] involved a bit of getting dirty and some heavy lifting, which seems to be a theme in our undergrad study abroad programs,” said Deidre Orriola, the public health instructor on the trip, referring to when students waded in thigh-high mud boots during low tide on a Thames tributary to learn about the history of water management and climate change.

“We got to see what we learned in global health classes in real life,” Rogers said.

Beyond public health, the program also fit in a visit to Stonehenge and Bath on one of the weekends during the trip.

“London was a really great place for students to study public health because it is rich with health history, has a plethora of health resources and has implemented some really important public health measures to keep the population healthy,” Orriola said.

All in all, this was a summer for travel at USF’s College of Public Health.

“I know what students get out of study abroad,” Rusnak said about her trip to Japan. “I had no idea what I was going to get out of it. It was amazing to see their perspectives broaden as they became immersed in such a different culture.”

Visit the undergraduate study abroad website for more information on international public health programs.


Story by AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley, USF College of Public Health