Hershey welcomes three international students for exchange program
If there is one thing that Wei Ting (Shaba) Chien has learned during his time in the United States, it’s that no country has a perfect public health system.
The senior medical student from Taiwan was one of three international students from Taiwan and Republic of Georgia to spend two weeks training on and around the Penn State College of Medicine campus in July as part of the Penn State International Health Exchange Program.
“I wanted to see how the Western world is like us, and how the system is different here,” he said.
Students in Penn State’s Master of Public Health program can complete international internships and fieldwork as part of their global health practice-based learning, but this summer, for the first time, students from partner institutions abroad have come to Hershey.
“The Penn State International Health Exchange Program is a significant step for our global health program, which aims to bring students, faculty and health professionals together to examine public health issues affecting the world,” said Dr. Vernon M. Chinchilli, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences.
The Master of Public Health program is designed to prepare future public health leaders, improve population health and reduce health disparities on local, national and international levels through education, research and service.
“The training was modeled after our Master of Public Health program, which emphasizes first-hand knowledge of public health practice,” said Julie Lentes, assistant director for health communication in the Department of Public Health Sciences. “We wanted our international students to have the opportunity to learn from key public health leaders in the region and how they interact.”
Students in the program met with legislative staff on Capitol Hill and visited the Baltimore City Health Department to hear from senior staff entrenched in that city’s major health issues. They attended presentations by Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Karen Murphy and Physician General Rachel Levine. They also heard from College of Medicine faculty and visited the Lion Reach mobile education center for medical professionals.
The students engaged with the local community by serving dinner at the Ronald McDonald House and shadowing medical students caring for the homeless at Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg. They also interacted with local children at Penn State Hershey’s Cubs Caring for the Community tent at the Farmer’s Market in Hershey.
Yi-Ting (Judy) Wu, a doctoral pharmacy student at Taipei University, said her country talks a lot about a low birth rate and caring for the elderly – two issues she didn’t hear much about here. “It is a lot of pressure on our future generations,” she said.
Wu said the medical and legal partnerships she observed during her stay were a new concept for her, and one from which she thinks her home country could benefit from. Health equity, health security and women’s health also were issues to which she hadn’t been exposed to very much prior to her visit.
Chien was surprised at the number of times healthcare workers and leaders talked about problems with abuse of narcotics and opiates. “They told us it is a major cause of accidental deaths – more than even car accidents,” he said. “That is very shocking to me because it’s not as serious of a problem in Taiwan. We have different laws.”
He said the United States is unique in that it has the highest health expenditures in the world, yet similar outcomes as his home country of Taiwan, which provides national health insurance for its citizens.
“All systems have their advantages and disadvantages though,” he said. “Maybe (in my country) people will start to abuse the system because it is so easy and efficient to get care.”
Ana Jalaghonia from the Republic of Georgia said she wants to be a general surgeon, so she was most impressed by a tour of the simulation center that introduced her to devices such as the daVinci robotic surgical system. In her final presentation, she compared advances in U.S. medical technologies compared to those in her home country.
Jalaghonia also observed that American doctors spend more time with their patients than those in the Republic of Georgia. “American doctors are so nice and have good conversations with their patients,” she said.
Lentes said it was especially rewarding for the College of Medicine’s Master of Public Health students to have personal interactions with the international students, especially those who haven’t had an opportunity to travel internationally.
Jessica Parascando, a second-year Penn State Master of Public Health student from New Jersey, said she enjoyed the opportunity to participate in site visits with the international students since she didn’t have a chance to take one of the international trips offered through the program.
“We do a lot of research to see what other countries are doing, but to have them come here and hear about things rather than reading it in a paper is amazing,” she said. “They always had great questions and a different perspective.”
Although it was interesting to note differences among the countries – students in both Taiwan and Georgia typically start medical school much earlier – the similarities were what surprised her most. “Not only how our hospital systems run, but family dynamics too,” she said. “We talked a lot about the stigmas associated with addictions and how it looks bad for families. They have issues like that there, too.”
Having a chance to share other international public health experiences with each other and compare notes was another valuable part of the program for both the international and Penn State students. “I think the more you know, the more you will find something new and interesting that might be good,” Chien said.
Wu agreed, adding: “Something that is a national public health issue could become a global one in the future, but we can come together to address it.”
“One of the main goals of the Penn State International Health Exchange Program is to introduce both international and Penn State students to the public health systems in other countries, as well as social systems that may impact health,” said Dr. Kristin Sznajder, associate director for international initiatives. “Ultimately, we aim to provide opportunities for knowledge exchange that could lead to global public health improvements.”
Lentes said the international students added a diverse element to the student body that was rewarding for the about 50 Master of Public Health students.
“The program may grow or evolve into something different based on our learning experiences,” she said. “But we are excited to do it again.”
- By Jennifer Vogelsong