The Value of a Global Experience
by Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB
The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.
Almost ten years ago, in the fall of 2007, I took a trip that changed my life. As I stepped off the plane into the crowed Shanghai airport, I knew this trip was going to be different. The noise, the smells, and the ubiquitous Chinese charters were so foreign to me. My level of disorientation was palpable and discomforting. As a young Associate Professor and newly minted Department Chair, I was very interested in creating a more global department but was not sure where to start. My colleague, Yuanan Lu, a Wuhan, China, native was delighted to take me to his home country and serve as a bridge to Chinese Schools of Public Health. On that trip we signed exchange agreements with Wuhan and Fudan Universities, and over the next several years, over 50% of the faculty and many of our graduate students went to China to teach, learn, and conduct research studies. Now Wuhan feels like a second home to me. I crave Re Gan Mian (hot, dry noodles) for breakfast and always look forward to my next trip.
Over the last decade, I have had the opportunity to work throughout Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands. In every case, when I have sent a student or a junior faculty member abroad, they have come back changed. The experience of being out of your comfort zone, in a country where you are not fluent in the native language, and experiencing a very different public health system is transformative. I have been a huge proponent of students working in China. With almost 1 out of 5 people in the world living in China, it is essential to understanding public health. Issues such as air pollution, environmental degradation, and the male smoking rate are obvious and startling, but so are the subtler issues like the rise of obesity due to Westernization, the live birds at markets, and the lack of soap in public restrooms. The reverse is also true when Chinese students come to the US and find our customs, culture, and health system to be strange and different.
Since coming to Texas A&M, I have brought my excitement for global health with me. I have seen the change in a young faculty member who taught for us in China and now loves the country and is carrying out a multi-country study in health services research and beginning a career in global health. I have also seen this happen with a senior faculty member who was stuck in a rut and finding lack of meaning in his work. We were able to get funding from USAID for him to work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to perform an assessment of their School of Public Health. This has led him to create incredible partnerships with other researchers around the globe and a proposal to study the health status of the indigenous Batwa population. On every trip to the Congo, he comes back violently ill, and two months later he can’t wait to get back. This is the beauty of the global experience. It allows us to do real, meaningful work to help create healthier lives while also having profound influences on our own lives.
In 1998, when I was 25, I took my first international trip, a road trip to Canada. Since then I have been to China 18 times and visited dozens of countries. My biggest regret from college was not studying abroad. As public health educators, I think it is imperative that we develop international opportunities for our students and faculty. Despite recent isolationist trends, globalization is not going away. Global health is public health, and we owe it to the next generation of public health professionals to make international experiences a hallmark of our education programs.
Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]