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Guatemala stay prepares undergrads for health care challenges in the U.S.

USC Dornsife course set in Central America teaches a dozen students about health, disease, language and culture

students in class in Guatemala
Students enjoy a chocolate-making class in Guatemala. (Photo/Courtesy of Elizabeth Shi)

Sitting in a Guatemalan clinic, USC junior Elizabeth Shi listened to a local infectious disease specialist lecture on communicable diseases and parasites in Spanish.

“The doctor’s lectures were very informative, touching on topics such as Chikungunya, malaria, Zika and Dengue,” Shi said. “It was interesting because in class I’d just read a passage in Spanish about Chikungunya and related diseases such as malaria, and now I was learning about them from the biological angle.”

Shi, who is double majoring in health promotion and disease prevention and gender studies, was participating in the Problems Without Passports course “Health, Disease, Language and Culture in Guatemala,” which took 12 undergraduates to the Central American country earlier this year.

The course was created for students with a pre-health or international development emphasis. It is designed to help future health care professionals prepare to meet a major and widespread challenge — delivering health care to non-English speaking patients in the United States.

“The best way for health care professionals to prepare for a cross-cultural setting is to immerse themselves in another culture and acquire language skills before graduate training,” said Erin Quinn, associate dean of admissions emerita at the USC Keck School of Medicine of USC, who led the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences course.

The hands-on learning experience the PWP course provides does just that.

Undergraduates plunged into Guatemalan life by staying with local host families, while also taking Spanish classes for up to four hours a day. They attended lectures in Spanish on challenges in Guatemalan and global health, policy, public health, diseases and international development and health. They learned about Guatemala’s health care system, how education, culture, socioeconomic status and other factors influence diabetes, as well as about the inequalities between indigenous and Ladino populations.

Gaining an understanding

A visit to a public hospital allowed students to witness the hardships faced by patients.

“After seeing the conditions, I understood why many women would rather use comadronas [traditional Mayan birth attendants] than go to the hospital,” Shi said. “The experience made me think about privilege, sustainable solutions and health.”

A visit to a rural health care clinic run by the nonprofit Primeros Pasos, where students met doctors and volunteers, provided a more positive view of health care in the country.

“It was interesting to learn how the clinic had tackled problems in creative ways,” Shi said. “For example, because many people from rural areas may not read Spanish or read at all, clinic staff used a simple picture method to ensure patients knew when to take their medicine.”

Students also gained insights into social conditions in Guatemala. The screening of a documentary about the life of Guatemalan prostitutes was followed with a discussion about the relationship between machismo, prostitution and health.

The conversation led us to talk about women’s health and the power of education.

Elizabeth Shi

“Hearing each woman’s story, often heartbreaking ones about childhood abuse, domestic violence and socioeconomic despair, really pulled at my heart,” Shi said. “The conversation led us to talk about women’s health and the power of education.”

A visit to a children’s immigration shelter also proved to be a moving experience for the undergraduates.

“As a daughter of immigrants, seeing and hearing the experiences of these kids made me reflect on the personal side of immigration that often gets ignored in politics and media,” Shi said.

Students learned about the use of plant-based medications in traditional Guatemalan medicine and visited a medicinal herbalist who told students about her experiences treating tortured civil war fighters suffering from physical and psychological trauma.

“Hearing her passion for helping others through her profession made me realize that whatever I do in the future, I want to do it with the same dedication,” Shi said.


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Guatemala stay prepares undergrads for health care challenges in the U.S.

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