Students visiting a research facility in Durban, South Africa, as part of their experiential learning course. (Photo credit Malcolm Steinberg)

'A Life-Changing Experience': Students Reflect on Experiential Learning Courses

August 02, 2018
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By Phoebe Melvin

Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) students graduate from their degree programs with an excellent education that leaves them equipped to become the next generation of global leaders in health science research, practice and policy.

In addition to lessons from FHS’ interdisciplinary network of faculty and staff, some FHS students also participate in experience-based, hands-on learning that enriches and augments their classes.

Each year, the faculty offers international experiential learning courses that are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They are a blend of formal lectures and opportunities to learn first-hand from those living and working in the areas where the field schools are based.

This year, 33 students took part in FHS experiential learning courses, including Henrietta Ezegbe, who travelled to Durban, South Africa, and Stefanie Machado, who travelled to the the U.S./Mexico border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego.

Students during their visit with Sangomas, traditional South African healers. (Photo credit Henrietta Ezegbe)

The Durban experiential learning course, led by professor Malcolm Steinberg, is a collaboration between SFU and the Sub-Saharan African Network for Tuberculosis and HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE), and focuses on HIV and youth. Students learned directly from young women living with HIV, sex workers’ rights advocates, researchers and medical professionals.

Ezegbe says that visiting Durban, the epicentre of the global HIV pandemic, reinforced the importance of integrating classroom learning and field experiences.

 “I feel like this course has provided me with building blocks for my future career as a public health practitioner,” she says, “And helped me gain a clearer understanding of the underlying issues, major challenges and current developments in HIV prevention, treatment, care and support among youth.”

Before departing for Durban, students were briefed on a number of topics. For example, they learned about the role of traditional South African healers, known as ‘Sangomas,’ who are heavily involved in the HIV response. Although, says Ezegbe, “This is definitely not an experience that can be learned in any lecture room.”

“It was truly fascinating to see the traditional healers describe the step-by-step processes and guidelines in counselling and screening their clients for HIV,” she says. “Additionally, experiencing the Sangomas performing the traditional ceremony and sharing a lunch with them was a truly rich and life-changing experience.”

Students visited the US/Mexico land border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana. (Photo credit Stefanie Machado)

The U.S./Mexico border experiential learning course, led by professor Shira Goldenberg, is a collaboration between SFU and the University of California San Diego. Students learn about global migrant health through experiences that prioritize the lived experience of immigrants, and those working on the front lines to support their needs.

For Machado, the course was eye-opening, particularly in regards to the value of field work, and community-based research and programs.

“As someone who wants to further delve into the research world, I realized the importance of engaging with the community and people with lived experiences in order to broaden my perspective and understanding of issues before researching and writing about them,” she says.

In the lead-up to her departure, Machado says she spent three months researching the Mexican health care system, but once in Tijuana she experienced it first-hand.

“Unsurprisingly,” she says, “the reality of health systems and population health is often quite different from what is available in the literature and discussed in the classroom. The course allowed me to take what I’ve learned at SFU and apply it and understand real-world issues within specific contexts.”

Students during their visit with maquiladora, factory workers in Mexico. (Photo credit Stefanie Machado)

When Ezegbe and Machado were asked if they would recommend these experiential learning courses to other students, both responded with a resounding ‘yes.’

“It was an extremely impactful course that shaped my perspective in a way that no lecture and classroom-based learning ever has,” says Machado.

“It was incredible,” says Ezegbe. “Every single day provided its own kind of valuable opportunity and experience. However, the opportunity to network, make new contacts, and learn together with students from other universities around the world was the most valuable aspect for me.”

You can view more information about the 2018 experiential learning courses in South Africa, and at the US/Mexico border on LinkedIn. The courses run in May of each year, so check back in the coming months for information about opportunities in the future.

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