An Innovative Global Diplomacy Public Health Student Program – Lessons from the Field in a Post-Conflict Medellin, Colombia
For over fifty years, Colombia has been embroiled in conflict, displacing nearly seven million people, second only to Syria for the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Most are displaced to urban environments into dense informal settlements with inadequate water, sanitation, shelter and power infrastructure. The city of Medellín, has become home to over 200,000 IDPs in informal agglomerations. Medellín’s transformation to a city of progress and innovation through the promotion of “social urbanism” is an example of how collaboration between city institutions and government sectors can address issues of poverty, violence, equality, engagement, and reintegration of displaced populations in Colombia.
The Post-Conflict Colombia Public Health Project is a collaborative academic exchange program aimed at bringing together public health students from the United States and Colombia for the purpose of understanding between the people of both countries. The project aims to educate students while also providing direct service and fostering long-term cross-cultural relationships and sustainable projects. Seminars, skill building workshops, cultural experiences, and community engagement are used to build professional competencies and inform policy recommendations for future projects. Despite the limited research on the educational impact of short-term global emersion programs, small scale evaluations point to an increase in learners’ cross-cultural adaptability. The believed benefit to students’ professional and personal development must be balanced with ethical considerations including preparedness of students, health and safety risks, cultural sensitivity, and issues of sustainability. In order to address these concerns, programs should be developed collaboratively through bi-directional participatory relationships, incorporating both education and direct service components, and promoting local capacity building and long-term sustainability.
Our course pairs 16 carefully selected graduate-level public health and medical students from Harvard and Universidad de Antioquia, who will serve as both student and citizen ambassadors, to come together and share about their culture, values, and experiences through the lens of diplomacy and dialogue to make a meaningful impact in the people and country of Colombia. The course examines the social development model of Medellín and its impact on advances in peace, social equity, and health. Beyond the theoretical concepts, students will learn to apply them to the Granizal community in order to create practical solutions that are sustainable, scalable, innovative, and measurable.
As other disciplines move away from curricula limited to rote learning and fact-based content, public health and policy education will also benefit from incorporating experiential and competency-based learning with an emphasis on skill building in leadership, management, policy-making, and research.5 The Institute of Medicine’s 2003 report, Who Will Keep the Public Healthy? Educating Public Health Professionals for the 21st Century, recommends eight content areas as essential to graduate level public health education programs: informatics, genomics, communication, cultural competence, community-based participatory research, global health, policy and law, and public health ethics.6 The report further acknowledges the importance of developing international relationships between academic institutions, community organizations, and health agencies for collaboration in interdisciplinary and community-based research, learning, and service. Health disparities, issues of social justice, and public health threats from infectious disease are less and less confined by political and geographic boundaries. The future generation of leaders in public health and policy must be able to bridge nations and cultures through diplomacy and be equipped to develop innovative strategies and partnerships across professional disciplines and on a global scale.
While several public health approaches have been documented in the literature, we describe a model for a multi-institutional and cross-cultural collaboration based on The Post-Conflict Colombia Public Health Project, a three-week intensive course developed in partnership between the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the Open Hands Initiative, and the University of Antioquia. While this model is a public health course focusing on Colombia, the concepts and educational strategies can be applied across academic disciplines and to other countries and communities.