June 24, 2024

This fall marks 10 years since Mellissa Withers, PhD, MHS, began serving as the Director of the Global Health Program of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU), a consortium of 60 international universities. This network provides students a chance to deep dive into prevailing global health challenges while learning from their peers living across several countries shaped by different cultures, perspectives, and experiences.

Image courtesy Mellissa Withers, PhD MHS.

“While it’s important for our students to learn the theory and frameworks of global health presented in textbooks and learned in the classroom, being able to actually go out and apply it through experiential learning is a beneficial opportunity that is really important for our students,” explains Withers, who also serves as an associate professor and the director of pedagogical enrichment and training in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The APRU was founded in 1997 by the presidents of four Californian universities who wanted to build multidisciplinary collaborations across the pacific. In 2007, USC established a new program in global health which became its largest program, focusing on the students, education and training. “I am fortunate that the USC Office of the Provost has continued to support my position in this role to expand our global health initiatives,” says Withers.

During her tenure, Withers has developed several vibrant initiatives including joint courses which have run for the past nine years. Every fall, she leads a course called ‘Global Health Leadership in the Real World’ bringing together five to seven universities. This semester, students from China, Thailand, Singapore, Mexico, and USC, simultaneously logged in from different time zones for two hours every week, over a ten-week period. The first half of the class featured a renowned global health guest speaker, who imparted their varied expertise and experiences in the field. Past speakers included the Former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Former Associate Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), and a former Minister of Health from Costa Rica. In the second half of each class, students dissected case studies with instructors working in small groups representative of the five countries in attendance, to exchange ideas and debate global health concepts.

“In Global Health we talk a lot about the importance of interdisciplinary solutions and collaborations, but it’s not too often that you see so many disciplines, countries and economies represented in one activity, training program or conference,” she reports.  Another ongoing class following a similar model is a course in ‘Global Health Ethics,’ bringing together students from Ecuador, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Mexico, the Philippines and the U.S. The student body is not only diverse in terms of location, but also features various college majors including medicine, pharmacy, law, anthropology, engineering, and art. “The representation of a wide range of disciplines is really critical to prepare the next cohort of global health leaders,” she affirms.

“Since these courses were well received, with high demand and limited space, we decided to develop other key initiatives to engage students,” she reveals. This led to the creation of the ‘Global Health Student Poster Contest’ held concurrently at the APRU Annual Conference. A highlight of this contest is that all the student’s posters are accepted and displayed, giving them an opportunity to showcase their work at an international scientific conference. “This helps to break down some equity barriers for students who cannot afford to fly or participate in international trips,” she indicates.

This year’s conference will be held in Latin America for the first time. Undergraduate and graduate students are invited to submit their posters which are judged by committee members. This month, eight students from USC’s programs in global medicine, public health, and global health have received funding from the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences and Pearson to attend the conference in Mexico City. There, they will present their work or serve as moderators. A recent graduate from the Master of Public Health program, Brooke Edwards, MPH, has been selected as a finalist for her poster on physical therapy among liver transplant patients.

Another initiative Withers oversees is the ‘Annual Virtual Global Health Case Competition,’ where the winning team receives $1,000. In the past, the competition hosted 40-50 teams, but this year it attracted 100 teams from over 20 countries. This year, the APRU partnered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to create a challenge addressing the needs of migrants and refugees in urban settings and health care. Teams of three to six students were given 12 weeks to create a proposal to address the challenge. Past challenges included topics around tobacco control, mental health, disaster preparedness, using social media to promote exercise, and addressing the infodemic.

There are many opportunities for students to develop their skillset in global health at USC. “I hope our students walk away from these experiences with a deeper understanding of cross-cultural competencies, feeling like global citizens, with greater confidence, effective communication, and leadership skills,” she concludes.

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