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Northwestern expands faculty collaborations in health-related fields

In a step towards continued cross-cultural collaborations, eight Northwestern faculty members and administrators traveled to Havana, Cuba, this past June to explore possible joint research opportunities with Cuban peers.

Four days of back-to-back meetings with University of Medical Sciences of Havana faculty and visits to family doctor offices, hospitals and specialty clinics highlighted Cuba’s public healthcare successes and yielded multiple possible research collaborations through diverse theoretical lenses.

The meetings come at a point in indefinite U.S.-Cuban relations. Yet Northwestern continues to intensify its ties with the country’s academic community in an ongoing effort to promote the creation and sharing of knowledge across borders.

This article was published by Northwestern’s Office of International Relations. Click here to read the whole article, and watch and read several interviews with the Northwestern faculty members who traveled to Cuba this past June.

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More Than a Gym: World YMCA

YMCA. There’s probably a local fitness center near your town with these letters. In 1978 the acronym became almost inseparable from the popular Village People song. However, the Young Men’s Christian Association doesn’t just provide a place for people to workout or an easy line dance for weddings; it works to “bring social justice and peace to young people and their communities, regardless of religion, race, gender or culture,” according to their website.

George Williams founded the organization in London in 1844 after witnessing the conditions young men in the city faced at the time of industrialization. Concerned for their moral wellbeing and upset by the desperate situations many young men lived in, Williams began the YMCA as a kind of sanctuary from the city streets, focusing on prayer and Bible study. The idea caught on quickly: Thomas Valentine Sullivan brought the association to America in 1851.

As the organization grew, the services expanded. In 1889, American members created the YMCA World Service to help fund and support YMCAs around the world. The different chapters began to offer places for young men to exercise and opportunities for education. Soon, organizers added issues surrounding health and the arts, among other topics, to the YMCAs’ agendas. Families became the focus, and YMCAs structured themselves to serve the needs of men, women and children.

Today the YMCA assists 58 million people in 119 countries. The YMCA World Service continues to support the World Alliance of YMCAs, a confederation of all of the YMCAs in the world. Using a community approach, the YMCA seeks to improve the lives of young people and their families. It focuses on both challenges that distinctly impact certain communities, as well as more international-level issues. Programming includes everything from youth leadership projects to health and HIV/AIDS prevention education.

Mary Tikalsky, director of world services for YMCA spoke in Professor Diamond’s Achieving Global Impact Through Local Engagement class recently, giving students a better sense of the organization’s international scope and the importance of volunteers in any organization. She described the wide range of opportunities for volunteers in the YMCA, from serving as mentors in underserved communities to building bridges for philanthropic giving, and related her unique experience with the organization.

Tikalsky first discovered the YMCA after a friend gave her a membership to their local gym. She enjoyed the center so much that she decided to get more involved, though at the time, she didn’t really understand much about the YMCA.

“I went to a training and then I became a fitness instructor, it took me until I got there and got to be a fitness instructor then I was in the Y every night taking [or teaching] classes,” Tikalsky said. “When you’re there all of a sudden you start watching people meeting people and you start ‘seeing the water.’”

Thanks to the recommendations of colleagues at the YMCA in Delaware, Tikalsky had the opportunity to work internationally with the YMCA.

“Someone came up to me and said would you like to be a volunteer on our international committee?” Tikalsky said. “This person changed my world.”

A German major in college, Tikalsky was ecstatic to learn that the committee had a new partnership with YMCAs in Germany. She went abroad, helping teach classes and offer services to German citizens. Her experience inspired her to stay involved with the YMCA, assisting with other international efforts and helping other volunteers find roles to support the organization. Despite the large scale, Tikalsky said that the YMCA always feels like a community.

“It’s a huge organization but what I love about it is that even though its so huge, its still very personal,” Tikalsky said. “I love it also because there are good people all around the country and all around the world, and I could send you to Togo tomorrow or South Africa and the YMCA people would treat you as their new best friend in a minute. That’s the beauty of the values of the YMCA.”

Tikalsky encouraged students to consider volunteering with organizations that exhibit values they admire. She advised not to let fear of failure or inadequacy keep them from reaching out to different causes.

“Have passion for whatever mission it is,” Tikalsky said. “You don’t have to be perfect; it’s not about being perfect.”

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Practical Advice from a Doctors Without Borders Nurse

Rebecca Singer, R.N., N.D., has been working with Doctors Without Borders since 2005, helping survivors of violence get the care they need in countries like Chad, Liberia and Papua New Guinea. Not only does she offer medical assistance, Singer has advocated for policy changes and helped develop better relations at places where health intersects with the government, law and society. Singer spoke to Professor Diamond’s Achieving Global Impact Through Local Engagement class recently, giving students some helpful tips about working in the global health field.

Know What You Want
In the realm of global health, you don’t necessarily need medical training to make an impact. “Anyone can do any of the things I did for the most part, and anyone can do and work on the types of projects that I’m talking with all different skill sets,” Singer said. In both the realms of development work and humanitarian work, there are plenty of options to get involved. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, according to Singer. It’s important to know what kind of a role you want. “[With] humanitarian response you are responding to a disaster of some variety, a crisis,” Singer said. “If you’re working in humanitarian work, it tends to be less comfortable. You have to be comfortable without internet, without access to phones, without a room of your own, without flushing toilets.” Humanitarian work is also normally shorter in duration from development work; responders typically get to see the impact of their work, saving lives or otherwise, and then leave. Assisting with developing systems requires more time and can get predictable, according to Singer, as building systems can last indefinitely. However, it has the added benefits of being able to live with a community and enjoy a more stable lifestyle.

Learn Before You Go
Always research the location of your future work, as well as the agencies you’ll be assisting before you go anywhere. “For me I think that the key step in any of the work that I have done is that assessment piece,” Singer said. “It’s the time when you’re going to learn about the context in which you are working in order to maximize the resources that exist and in order to be able to plan and implement an appropriate response.” While speaking with health professionals and workers in the area is helpful, try to go beyond the medical background. “Often times the doctors and nurses and health workers in general at the health center know all the statistics about who walks in the door – what sorts of problems they have and what sorts of medication they were given,” Singer said. “They don’t necessarily know the conditions under which people live, the things that might have happened, the health beliefs they have and the behaviors they might have engaged in prior to waking in that [hospital] door.” This kind of information will help you deliver a better response that can resonate with the community.

Include, Don’t Exclude
“It really does take a very wide net with lots of stakeholders with lots of people from lots of different professions and lots of different specialties in order to implement almost any program,” Singer said. When planning any effort, try to engage as many people as possible, from religious leaders to women’s groups. Singer described her experience trying to build a clinic to help respond to sexual violence in Papua New Guinea. As part of the project, the clinic workers developed relationships with court systems, law enforcement and community leaders to help women get referrals and strengthen laws and law enforcement in issues relating to sexual violence. They also spoke with safe houses and child care workers. “We could never do this work alone,” Singer said. Cutting out any group leads to a risk that the project could fail or not turn out as well.

Be Ready for Anything
“No matter what you do, all the good planning, all the good assessment, when the intervention time comes, you have to be patient, you have to flexible and you have to be ready for anything,” Singer said. “It almost never goes as smoothly as you think or as neat as it looks on paper.” Singer realized all this herself when working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, helping plan and implement a large-scale vaccination campaign in which a caravan of cars would deliver supplies to a number of communities. “The night before we started it rained harder than I had ever experienced rain for about eight hours straight,” Singer said. The roads turned to mud, creating serious problems for the program. “We got to our sites three hours late and we dug the cars out how many times.” Singer said that the team stuck with the project, navigating the difficulties as best they could. “You’ve got to pivot, you have to figure out what to do, and you have to be patient,” Singer said.

Count Things Differently
“The key to evaluation is really asking the right questions – where do we want to go what do we want our outcome to be?” Singer said. “We have to know where we are going and right from the start how are we going to measure that, how are we going to tell if we are successful.” Sometimes the ultimate health outcomes of a project will not be immediately clear, which necessitates a different standard of measuring impact. Singer said to look to other indicators, from measuring comprehension to accessibility to get a better understanding of the benefits or disadvantages a program carries.

Speak Up
Doctors Without Borders has long been an organization linked to advocacy, according to Singer. The group is known for speaking out about human rights abuses, and refusing to operate in conditions where they believe injustice is occurring. Anyone working in global health can and should advocate for those they serve and their values. “It’s really important that you keep the reasons that you are doing this work – your true north – it’s not about the numbers,” Singer said. “Take a step back and remember the big picture and then use your voice to speak out.”

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A Chat with UNICEF’s Whitney Cross

Whitney Cross, the Global Citizen Fellow for Chicago’s regional UNICEF office, recently came to speak to Professor Diamond’s Global Health 390 class about the work that UNICEF does around the world, from trick-or-treat programs to vaccination campaigns. Cross first discovered UNICEF when she researched global efforts to alleviate the poverty in Haiti, after she witnessed the country’s situation firsthand in a brief visit to the islands. A 2014 graduate from Loyola University, Cross interned with UNICEF and served as a volunteer for many of their local projects. Today, she is in charge of helping organize volunteer efforts and promoting UNICEF in the area.

What you do with UNICEF today?
My role is a two-year fellowship. There are fellows in 12 cities across the country, and my role here in Chicago, similar to my other colleagues, is to support community engagement efforts in the markets we are in. So I focus on Chicago and the Midwest, other colleagues focus on Dallas and so on, but basically what that means is supporting all of our volunteer programs, which includes everything from Trick-or-Treat to Kid Power to our high school clubs to our campus clubs. Then also, it’s part of my role to kind of act as a grassroots spokesperson for the organization here in Chicago. Anytime someone is hosting an event and would like somebody to speak, or anytime a university needs someone to come and guest lecture, then I’ll represent the organization in that capacity.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

I really do love so many aspects of my job but I feel like the best thing is when you kind of see someone, just the lightbulb go off for someone and whether its in a presentation or through a meeting or after a phone call or even via email and you hear the excitement in their voice about the work that UNICEF is doing or their passion for helping kids in general. That is something that is really powerful and definitely keeps me excited to come to work every day.

What do you wish more people knew about UNICEF?
There are so many people who are immediately familiar with the name but not exactly what we do. I wish that everyone could have a better understanding of the scope of UNICEF’s work, I feel like I’m continuously impressed by the work that UNICEF does. It’s easy to think of large organizations as just slow-moving or [that they] don’t have the presence to move quickly, but I am so impressed by how quickly and efficiently the organization works. For example I think I touched on the fact that they can deliver supplies to any country in the world in 72 hours and are constantly leveraging technology and innovation. The organization actually has an entire division called the Innovations Unit, which tries to tackle global problems, from figuring out ways to structure new programs to creating new products and technologies I think that is really special and I wish more people knew [about it].

Can Northwestern students get involved with UNICEF?

We really do need the support of college students and people that are passionate about children’s rights, especially in a time where we are seeing so many horrible things happen to children. The best way that any student can get involved [with UNICEF] is definitely through the Northwestern campus club. They are doing so much great work, and it’s run by students. The members really do decide what to focus on and what events they want to host. I know they partner with a lot of other on campus organizations which is something that we definitely encourage. A year ago they hosted a “water walk” – on the beach they had students come to kind of experience what it is like to have to carry water or go search for water every single day rather than be able to turn on a faucet, which I think was an incredible experiential event. I know they’ve hosted film screenings regarding human trafficking and had me and other speakers come in to talk about anti-trafficking work. They’ve [also] partnered with global health-focused organizations on campus.


We talk a lot about trying to aid global health efforts and being a ‘global citizen.’ How do you think that Northwestern students can be better global citizens?

We say that a global citizen is “someone who understands interconnectedness, respects and values diversity, has the ability to challenge injustice and inequities and takes action in a personally meaningful way.” Northwestern students, at least the ones I come in contact with, already have a pretty clear understanding of diversity and have a great respect for that. I think that the hardest part for anybody is to actually take action around something they care about or an injustice that they see and so I would definitely encourage everyone to think about what issues you’re passionate about and how you plan to take action in a way that’s personally meaningful to you to make a difference.

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Five Northwestern Students Attend Emory Global Health Case Competition

This past March, five Northwestern students traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to compete in the Emory Global Health Case Competition. The diverse team, which was comprised of students hailing from Feinberg School of Medicine, Kellogg School of Management, and Weinberg College were tasked with creating an initiative to address mental health issues in Liberia. With a small budget and limited time constraints, the students had to pilot their mentoring program “Da Me” (Liberian English for It’s Me) in a nation ravished by mental health stigma, gender inequality, and a recent civil war. The team believed that Liberian women, survivors of rape and mourning the loss of family members during the recent civil war, would benefit the most from mental health programming . Thus, the program “put girls first” says Kellogg student Ferrona Lie, and worked to reduce mental health stigma and increase support for those who experienced trauma from recent events and those suffering from mental illness.

While the team did not place at the competition, Ferrona Lie and Sedoo Ijir both felt that they learned a lot from their experience. Lie, originally from Indonesia, felt that the skills she acquired from the competition furthered her goals to develop medical devices which will impact countries in need of better healthcare. While she commends American global health actors for their work in Africa, she urges key players to expand their impact to the far reaches of the world: namely, southeast Asia. But unfortunately, just as the case competition provided the team a limited budget, she feels that she does not currently have the financial resources to make an impact quite yet.

Sedoo Ijir, a Global Health Studies student, said herself “In our global health classes we critique…a lot. But when you are actually coming up with the initiative yourself, you have to take into account time constraints, target populations, government regulations, among other factors. Unfortunately, sacrifices have to be made. I think that is why no global health program is without flaw or need for critique.” Ijir said the team struggled over the budget and time constraints which forced them to develop only a year long pilot program in the city of Monrovia, which had minimal research efforts to ensure the program was effective. Ijir highlights that these issues reflect broader challenges in the field of global health. As she aspires to return to her parents’ home country of Nigeria to pursue global health work, she feels sure that the Emory case competition and her studies through the Global Health Studies program will allow her to more effectively address these obstacles.  “This is how it [global health] works” Ijir claims “but this is not to say that is how it should work.”

 

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