Each month, we’ll be sharing the research and global adventures of our faculty members and/or students who have conducted research in his/her field of study, in our blog series entitled: Global Research Series.
It is seasonably humid day in the Dominican Republic, and inside a barren classroom with concrete floors and rusted paint on the walls, 15 students from Fresno State’s Public Health program are surrounded by young Haitian and Dominican children. Many of these children have tattered clothing and no shoes on their feet, but you couldn’t tell by the wide smiles formed across their faces and the infectious giggles that escaped their lips as the Fresno State students sung them songs and played games with them. The same smile resonated on the faces of the Fresno State students.
This was all part of a 10-day service-learning course that this dedicated group of public health students embarked on this past summer. From June 20-30, the eye-opening trip took them to medical facilities and allowed them to experience firsthand the severity of Haitian immigrant camps where the most indigent individuals reside – succumbed by poverty and where malnutrition is rampant.
Dr. Miguel Perez, professor of community health in Fresno State’s Department of Public Health, led the trip and said traveling to the Dominican Republic gave students the opportunity to experience a country with similar public health issues as experienced here in the Central Valley.
“The purpose of this class was to explore the impact of the UN Millenium Development Goals in a middle-income country such as the Dominican Republic,” said Perez. “As part of their service learning, students in the class had an opportunity to explore and experience the effects of poverty and lack of education on the health status of vulnerable populations, especially children.”
The first few days of the trip were spent visiting several batey communities. The term ‘batey’ refers to Haitian immigrant camps centered around sugar plantations that make up much of the seasonal workforce in the country. The harsh living and working conditions in these bateyes was a bit of a culture shock for the students, as most of the highly impoverished residents had limited access to basic U.S customs, including health care, electricity and sanitation.
Second year Master of Public Health student, Irene Rios, said the experience was staggering.
“I learned a lot about their culture and their means to survive through extreme poverty,” said Rios. “There are very little resources available to them. It was on this day that we learned these communities needed the very basics of food, water, shelter, and safety.”
Just a few days later, Rios and her classmates were given the opportunity to provide temporary, but much needed, relief to those residents. Through the generous financial support of Fresno State’s Friends for Civic Engagement, students were able to buy enough food and water to feed 30 families at the bateyes.
In her reflection paper, Rios described this moment with the following words:
“The evidence of malnourishment was evident in some of the women and children. A few of the kids appeared to have Kwashiorkor, a severe protein-energy malnutrition. We met a mother of seven children who weighed just over 80 pounds. The most basic of needs needed to be met, so the generous sponsorship from Friends for Civic Engagement was spent on nutritious and culturally acceptable foods. Beans, rice, noodles, maize, and oil were a few of the items purchased for the families. No feeling can compare to the smiles and gratefulness of the families we received that day.”
A unique aspect of the service-learning trip was that it connected Fresno State students with medical and public health students from Universidad Central del Este (Central University of the East, UCE). Together, they were able to work collaboratively to provide health education activities and services to local residents. The trip also coincided with UCE’s Global Health Week.
Community health senior, Justin Outland, said being aware of the impact of health on a global scale is essential, even to those in the states.
“It’s important to help others because things that are happening on the other side of the world could one day end up in our backyard,” remarked Outland. “If we help out those in need on the other side of the world, we will know how to handle the situation if it ever hits home. It’s also a great way to lend a helping hand.”
Rios mirrored Outland’s remarks.
“Health education is extremely important on a global scale,” said Rios. “Global status reports present that non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers, and respiratory diseases are key barriers to poverty alleviation and sustainable development. The more education we can offer about these diseases and environmental impact around the world, the closer we are to closing the gap between the marginalized populations.”
Bringing awareness to this global health issue, especially in impoverished countries such as the Dominican Republic, was a focal point Perez wanted to instill in his students and according to him, it seems to have made its impact.
“Anecdotal evidence from their reflection papers suggests that our students now have a better understanding of the multidimensional nature of health and almost all have committed to using that knowledge to strive to become better professionals,” said Perez. “Most importantly, some have committed to continue to work with the communities we visited in the years to come.”
Kathy Nguyen, a community health major, said this trip has made a huge impact on her career and academic goals. In the future, she hopes to visit low-developing countries similar to the Dominican Republic to provide community service and health education.
“I want to be become a doctor and one day, make a difference for low-income individuals,” said Nguyen.
This latest visit marks the third time that Perez has taught at UCE, although it is the first time that students from Fresno State were involved. This time around he received a special honor, having been recognized as honorary professor at the University. The title of honorary professor is given in recognition of academic creativity and productivity based on teaching, research and spirit of service that has contributed to improving quality of life.
In the future, Perez hopes to welcome students from UCE to Fresno, so they can experience global health opportunities as well. He plans to lead another set of public health students to the Dominican Republic in the future to explore other public health issues of that region.
To learn more about this service-learning course, contact Dr. Miguel Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org.