Service Learning Beyond the Great Wall

Six Tulane undergraduate students combined the classroom with world travel and service last summer, learning firsthand about global health while providing support in several Chinese health centers.

This is the fifth year the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine has offered a summer course in China focused on health systems, but the first specifically targeted at undergraduates and the first to include service learning as part of the experience.

Clinical Associate Professor T.J. Stranova, shown here in rickshaw, coordinated the summer course along with Regents Professor Lizheng Shi.

The program is coordinated by TJ Stranova, clinical assistant professor, and Lizheng Shi, associate professor, both faculty in the Department of Global Health Systems and Development.

The entire course ran for 21 days. During the first week, all students, including six undergrads, three graduate students, and another six Chinese students from Fudan University, participated in Health Systems of China, a class taught by Shi. The class included both lectures and site visits to clinics conducting traditional Chinese medicine, the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and rural healthcare facilities.

While the graduate students continued with a second week in the classroom, the undergraduates transitioned to the service learning component of the trip, which took place in several community health centers.

“It may sound small, but everything in China is big. [These centers] are essentially hospital-size facilities providing inpatient, outpatient, and long-term care, and pediatrics,” says Stranova. They provide a full range of public health services including immunizations, women’s health education, pregnancy care, and child wellness, as well as chronic disease management and healthy lifestyle coaching.

The American students were paired with Fudan University students who served as translators and also participated in the service learning.

SPHTM undergrads were paired with Fudan University students to work in community health centers.

The student’s work varied depending on the site, but included activities like helping elderly patients learn about daily living exercises, conducting intellectual assessments of pediatric
patients through play, filing medical records, and more traditional “candy striper” activities such as retrieving supplies. One team, Shi said, was asked to help with the English translation of the center’s signage to help avoid confusion for English speakers.

Both Stranova and Shi hope to grow the program next year, expanding from six to 10 or 12 undergraduate students and adding more service learning sites. They will also work with
current preceptors to develop service learning protocols and establish expectations for new preceptors.

“One of the challenges we had initially was with preceptors who were reluctant to have [students] do anything because they were considered guests.” The preceptors didn’t want to offend students by asking them to do work. “Well, that was the whole idea!” said  Stranova.

In the end, the students enjoyed many opportunities to be involved directly with patients and the community, even handing out condoms and STD-prevention information to commercial sex workers.

Mary Patterson undergoes “cupping,” a traditional Chinese medicine that applies acupressure by creating a vacuum on the patient’s skin.

“To say the least, I was a bit nervous to take the leap [and go on the China trip], but I was willing. I can honestly say I am thankful I was part of the program,” says Mary Clare Patterson, a current junior in the BSPH program. “I feel I have so many stories, incidents, and examples to draw from now in regards to my public health education.”

Jeffery Johnson, associate dean for admissions and student affairs, accompanied the group on the first leg of the trip. “I observed such extraordinary teaching and mentoring by Dr. Lizheng Shi and Dr. TJ Stranova,” he says. “It was a privilege to have been invited into their global classroom.”

Stranova and Shi will begin taking applications for the 2012 summer program in the spring. Students from any undergraduate major are eligible to participate, although all of the undergrads who participated this year were public health majors.

—Dee Boling

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About Tulane University SPHTM

Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine is the oldest school of public health in the country and the only American school of tropical medicine. Our mission is to advance public health knowledge, promote health and well-being, and prevent disease, disability, and premature mortality. This is accomplished through academic excellence in education of public health professionals, rigorous scientific research of public health problems, creative partnerships to advance the practice of public health, and innovative service to the local, national, and international public health community.
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