Public health grad students go from global to local during pandemic

“Think globally, act locally.” This adage couldn’t be more apt than during a worldwide crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It takes everyone doing their part to make a difference. From government and politicians making tough decisions and enacting safety regulations to people putting on masks and staying six feet apart, each person can contribute to the greater good to keep themselves and others safe and healthy.

St. Catherine University’s Master of Public Health: Global Health program is employing this concept to their curriculum during the pandemic. Normally, each MPH student is required to participate in an international practicum experience during their studies to complete their degree, traveling to work with overseas partners in countries such as Kenya, Zambia, or Thailand, to name a few. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions, these international practicums were no longer an option.

The MPH students and faculty were not deterred, and found new and local ways to contribute during this worldwide public health crisis. Program and fieldwork coordinator Emmanuel Ngabire, MPH, says, “Some of the overseas partners had projects that students could complete remotely. For the other students, the faculty mobilized and reached out to global and local partners. These organizations’ responses were overwhelmingly positive and we moved forward from there to engage our students in meaningful work.” Of the 21 students in the program, 19 have continued with their practicum in this new way, many assisting directly with matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the summer of 2020, Rhema Persaud MPH’21 was going to be in Oaxaca, Mexico working with Child Family Health International’s Global Health Program as a community health intern. Instead, she worked as a COVID-19 contact tracer southwest of the Twin Cities in Scott County’s public health department, working remotely from home. As a contact tracer, Persaud was responsible for calling individuals who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. She informed them of their risk, and recommended that they be tested and self-quarantine if possible until they receive test results. Sagal Odowa MPH’21 also worked as a contact tracer for Scott County. She often used her Somali language skills to communicate with Somali-Americans who may have tested positive for COVID-19 or been referred for testing.

Anastasia Christian MPH’21, was expecting to work for Child Family Health International in India last summer. When her practicum was cancelled due to the pandemic, Christian’s academic advisor and assistant professor of public health Leso Munala, PhD, connected Christian with the program director of the bachelor’s in public health program, associate professor of public health Meghan Mason, PhD. Christian joined Mason in her work on the Safely Returning to Campus Committee (SRC) — funded in part by a GHR grant — on policies and procedures for St. Kate’s community during the COVID-19 pandemic. During her practicum, Christian conducted contact tracing on campus, developed contact tracing protocols, advised on isolation and quarantine guidance, and scripted all of St. Kate’s "Safely Returning to Campus" videos. As Christian describes her experience, “I found this work to be very relevant to global health as it relates to our immediate community. COVID-19 is a global pandemic. However, I believe the work done within our immediate communities is also relevant to the health of the greater community that extends beyond us. I learned that for complex issues such as COVID-19, you need a large range of areas of expertise to come together to achieve a unified goal.” Although she was looking forward to the international practicum before it was cancelled, she says, “I am still appreciative of the fact that I can do some public health work on a global pandemic while studying for my MPH right here in Minnesota.”

The MPH program was started in 2015 “with the vision of being a master’s program in public health in global health,” says MPH program director and associate professor of public health Kari Hartwig, DrPH. Every course has a global health context incorporated into it, which is rather unique — most master of public health programs in the United States focus their coursework domestically, with just a few classes that discuss public health on a global scale. The MPH program has nurtured reciprocal relationships with partner organizations worldwide, connecting St. Kate’s with public health initiatives in over 15 countries. Additionally, the diverse public health faculty and staff provide their personal experience from around the globe, including Kenya, Rwanda, and Nigeria. All of these factors contribute to the program’s goal of illustrating and participating in an all-encompassing approach to humanity’s public health.

Although this past year has not been what MPH students or faculty expected, the ability to assist in a global crisis from home gave many MPH students an invaluable perspective. As Hartwig says of the past year, “with the support of our local and global partners, our students have been flexible and pivoted to defining new projects that fit with existing and emerging public health needs.” Christian agrees, saying, “I learned how to be adaptive, that with every new day, new information may have altered the work done the day prior. Being flexible and ready to adapt as new information comes from all directions is very important in public health.”


Learn more about the Master of Public Health: Global Health program

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