Hamdi Ali MPH'19 (center) realized the impact public health work can make when she spent 10 weeks in Kenya developing training manuals for local healthcare providers.
Last summer, when Hamdi Ali MPH'19 started a 10-week practicum in Kenya as part of her public health graduate program, she never imagined she would develop nationwide training manuals to help local healthcare provider's respond to violence against young women and children. Or, have an opportunity to mentor at-risk adolescent girls and empower them to be resilient, determined, safe, and AIDS-free.
"I met a number of smart and ambitious young women who live in conditions and environments that present unimaginable challenges," recalls Ali. "Working with our partner organization, LVCT Health, we provided these girls with mentors, school uniforms, and cash allowances that helped alleviate the barriers for them to attend school. That moment is really when I saw the difference public health work can make."
This year, Ali is continuing to work with other partner organizations and her St. Catherine University faculty mentor, Leso Munala, MSW, PhD — a Kenyan native — to explore the issue of sexual violence against school aged girls in Kenya. According to Munala, this is a problem in numerous low-income countries where the stark inequality of women persists and violence against them is fueled by social challenges, economic hardships, and tribal traditions.
These are just a few examples of how St. Kate's faculty and students are addressing pressing global health challenges — and the "global" part is central at the University. "You have to be thoughtful. You have to step back and look critically at the needs of individual communities and diverse populations in order to understand the issues and how to help," says Mary Hearst, MPH, PhD, director of the Master of Public Health (MPH) in Global Health program at St. Kate's.
Hearst joined St. Kate's six years ago when talk of starting a master's program at the University had just begun. There was no other MPH program in Minnesota with a true global focus. Having a mission that so closely aligns with the fundamental priorities of global public health — social justice and women — and a diverse student body made up of 34 percent students of color (68 percent in the undergraduate public health program) — who better to build this? "Our goals for this program are about equity and achieving diversity in the workforce," adds Hearst. "We need to be educating the students who will be working in the communities they represent."
Thanks to a generous grant from the GHR Foundation — which addresses global development, education, and health — the first cohort of St. Kate's students pursuing an MPH in Global Health degree kicked off the program in 2016. This spring, 21 students in the program's second class will graduate, continuing to temper a severe shortage of skilled public health professionals to meet the needs of global populations. According to the Association of Schools and Programs in Public Health, three times the present number of students will need to be educated over the next 11 years to meet the needs of the U.S. population alone, and the shortfall is estimated to be 250,000 professionals by 2020. Public health needs on a global scale are even more considerable.
St. Kate's public health students are currently working with faculty to advance research in Kenya, Ghana, Thailand, Bangladesh, Zambia, Chile, New York, and Minnesota. In 2018-2019, students will conduct an estimated 43 practicums exploring public health issues in 12 countries across five continents — including several working with immigrant and refugee communities locally in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Community health workers, known locally as kadirs, in Indonesia.
Building a Foundation
Hearst and her faculty agree the intentional focus on global health and social justice is what draws students to St. Kate's and elevates their education and training to a level necessary for them to navigate complex global health issues. Like Ali's work in Kenya, students have invaluable opportunities to collaborate with partner organizations and faculty to gain practical knowledge and real-world experience. And true to St. Kate's values, and commitment to the liberal arts, the program engages students to draw from their own diverse perspectives to understand how to work effectively and ethically with populations all over the world. Personal experiences, current events, and articles on culture, race, and privilege fuel discussions in the classroom, where students and faculty check judgment at the door and create a safe space to learn, take risks, and offer differing opinions.
"Because we have institutionalized our mission, we can raise the tough, ethical questions that lead to productive and respectful conversations about what social justice and equity really mean," says Hearst. "That's what we're talking about with global health: basic human rights and the opportunity for everyone, regardless of lineage and geography, to lead full and healthy lives."
Public health faculty member Liz Allen, MPH, PhD, has spent much of her career exploring disparities in access to healthcare and related issues. She adds, "The focus on social justice in this program is huge. You can't talk about public health without talking about disparities. It opens the students' eyes to the world outside of themselves and they begin to understand how varying perspectives shed light in different contexts."
Giving the Unheard a Voice
It's easy to relate public health to the issues we hear more about on a global scale, like infectious disease, clean water, and disaster relief, for example. But St. Kate's public health faculty and students under stand the real X-factor when it comes to fostering the health of global communities: listening.
Where Munala is working in the Lua community — the third largest tribe in Kenya — widows are often subjected to violence as part of a traditional cleansing ritual. Usually, this is at the hands of a male family member who is "inheriting" them, and the widow endures this as the perceived way to remain in her home with her children. Munala spent time interviewing widows who underwent the sexual cleansing ritual, and met with community leaders to better understand their knowledge and attitudes about it. Ultimately, she hopes to work with the Kenyan ministry of health and local health management team, using this information to explore how they can support widows moving forward.
"Widows in this community believe they are only important when they are attached to men," adds Munala. "When I meet with them, they are touched that someone even recognizes this as an issue and asks for their opinion about it. Someone just needs to start the conversation for change to happen."
About 800 miles away in a Rwandan village, second-year student Inga Mumukunde MPH'19 partnered with the American Refugee Committee in summer 2018 to address rapidly growing teenage pregnancy rates and a lack of adolescent sexual health resources. Amidst cultural barriers of shaming for contraception use and perceptions of promoting promiscuity, Mumukunde worked with community members to understand their perspectives and how to address this issue.
"By the end of our focus group sessions, key community and church leaders agreed to start regular sex education with their congregation and committed to encouraging parents to have these conversations with their children," recalls Mumukunde. “This experience really demonstrated the importance of working directly with a community and listening to their needs in order to develop a sustainable program."