No summer rest as UC students eye global health abroad, at home

June 5, 2018

Student talking to young girl

In the summer, students have multiple options: refresh, do research, take courses or travel.

Some UC students are doing all of that, and at the same time immersing themselves in different cultures and global health.

Jasmin Camberos, a Master in Public Health student at UC Irvine, will travel to Thailand for an internship in community health.

Alex Owens, a UC Santa Cruz politics student, goes to Ghana in late June for a course and field work in “Global Health and Global Food.”

Ya Yang, who majors in public health and psychology at UC Merced, will spend the summer close to home. He will research the complex health risks of Shamans, who provide healing and spiritual care to a large Hmong population in the Central Valley.

Jenny Mendez Butler, who graduated June 1 from UCSF with a master’s in nursing, will reflect on global health lessons learned – particularly from her time last summer in Chiapas, Mexico – as she takes her next career step. She plans to work in the San Francisco Bay Area as a nurse practitioner in a community with a large immigrant and Spanish-speaking population.

Purposeful journeys

Jasmin Camberos and friend in Bali
Jasmin Camberos, UC Irvine, in Bali

Jasmin Camberos, has spent several summers and school breaks outside of the U.S. “I love to travel, but I don’t travel leisurely,” she said. “I travel with a purpose.”

And often that purpose is to be a global citizen, understanding the wider world and making it healthier and more sustainable. “A way to do this is to connect with different people, learn about their cultures, how they live, what they do on a daily basis,” said Camberos.

As an undergraduate double majoring in public health policy and education sciences, she journeyed in 2013 and 2014 to Honduras and Nicaragua with the UC Irvine chapter of Global Brigades, which improves health conditions in poor, mostly rural communities. She was a member of student teams that constructed eco-stoves, cement floors, latrines and hydration stations.

In 2014, she went to Bali, Indonesia for five weeks for a UC Irvine summer course on international public health practices. In addition to classroom and reading assignments focused on cultural competence, students worked with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and public health agencies to investigate, monitor and come up with innovative solutions to health issues in the community.

Camberos worked at Wanaseraya, an NGO in the Bali capital of Denpasar, that is home for some 50 poor elderly, many who are abandoned by their families. Some were shunned because of stigma and misunderstanding of mental health struggles, such as depression and dementia, that older people suffer, said Camberos.

Residents of the center rarely have visitors or social events, so Camberos was part of a project to bring painting, origami, music and other programs to the center. Even one “Wanaseraya Day” with those activities seemed to bring endless smiles, she said.

“It was such an empowering and eye-opening experience to be able to practice public health in another country,” said Camberos. “Even the smallest things can make a big difference in a place that has few resources.”

The Bali experience solidified her pursuit of a career in public health. And in the summer of 2016, she returned to Bali, this time as a research and teaching assistant for course instructor Zuzana Bic, director of Student Experience in Public Health Practice at UC Irvine.

That summer, Camberos worked with the Fair Future Foundation, which provides free medical care in Bali through community and health services. She also helped organize community projects, including work in mobile health clinics, with some of the 30 UC Irvine students enrolled in the course.

When she returned to southern California, she applied some of her new knowledge as a community outreach coordinator at a non-profit center that offers health care to uninsured or underinsured people in Garden Grove, 15 miles from Irvine.

On June 21, Camberos goes to Bangkok, for a community health internship sponsored by World Endeavors, which believes that cultural and professional immersion is the best way to learn from an experience aboard.

Camberos realizes this trip may be the last one abroad – for a while. She will earn her master’s in public health next spring and hopes for a career in community wellness close to home. But the lessons from abroad will last a lifetime, she said.

Appreciating Africa

UC Santa Cruz student Alex Owens in Ghana
Alex Owens, UC Santa Cruz, in Kenya

Alex Owens fell in love with Africa last summer during a one-month education abroad venture to Kenya, which included hunting fossils, as part of project that mixed paleontology, geology and ecology. Afterwards, he visited South Africa where he developed a greater appreciation for the African people and their history.

This summer, Owens, a politics major at UC Santa Cruz, will switch his focus to global health as part of a UC Education Abroad Program in Ghana.

“Some people live a lifetime and never venture out of their own country,” he said. “I had a transformative experience in Africa last year, and I have the privilege of going back a second time.”

The African people are so “vibrant, dynamic and sincere,” he said. “They astonished me. They give and give, yet they expect nothing in return. As an American, I was surprised that they could be so happy but have so little. It does not equate with what we are taught in the US, where wealth implies happiness.”

The UC course, “Global Health and Global Food,” will provide an overview of some of the major public health challenges in Ghana, including HIV, malaria, nutrition, food security and environmental sustainability.

During three weeks of field work, students will work with the West African Aids Foundation to provide HIV, malaria and tuberculosis testing and education in hard to reach communities in the Greater Accra Region. They will help conduct an evaluation to identify what strategies worked well, obstacles encountered and brainstorm new techniques.

Then, they will join the staff of the Kokrobity Institute in community schools to survey traditional methods of cleanliness and sustainability. They will teach how to make container gardens and waste bins from recycled materials. This will complement education on food security and sanitation in this major beach community.

Last, students will educate residents in a rural community in the Volta Region on family planning, childhood nutrition and basic first aid. They will also learn of key efforts to improve the nutritional intake of children in the village as they join women in processing some of the major food crops (palm and cassava).

Some of these projects in Ghana will be helpful to Owens in his work at home. He recently joined the Gardens for Global Health research project, headed by Matthew Sparke, professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the UC Global Health Institute’s Board of Directors. They are conducting preliminary research into the links between global health and school garden projects designed to deliver health benefits in underserved communities - both in poor countries and inner cities in the U.S.

This summer may not be the last visit to Africa for Owens, who plans to join the Peace Corps after his graduation next spring.

Culture of healing

UC Merced student Ya Yang
Ya Yang, UC Merced

In the Hmong community, shaman are spiritual healers whom the people often turn to for their physical health. The Central Valley is home to nearly 50,000 Hmong; Fresno alone has the second largest Hmong population in the country with 32,000.

Ya Yang, a third-year UC Merced student whose family immigrated from Thailand, knows much about the mysteries of shamans. His great grandfather was a shaman. Yang himself is a fledgling shaman, which is consistent with the belief that ancestral spirits and skills are part of a family tree.

This summer, he will embark on a unique study of the health risks of shaman, many of whom experience physical illness -- including fatigue, exhaustion, hallucinations and even near-death sensations – particularly when performing ceremonies. They also suffer high rates of psychological and chronic illness.

“Some have dreams about someone getting married.” Yang said. “This typically means that the person that was dreamed about will be sick or face death soon if not cured.”

Yang will survey some 10 to 15 shamans in the Central Valley and interview several more from around the U.S. and in Thailand by phone. He hopes to get information on their health history, which could offer clues to the ailments that they experience.

“Many Hmong people know what a shaman is, but they have no idea what shamans experience,” said Yang. “The research is important because findings may allow medical practitioners to understand traditional beliefs and provide better treatments for Hmong who are potential shaman.”

The study is especially timely in a place and period when many Hmong are bridging traditional cultural beliefs with western medicine, said Yang. Health care practitioners in the Central Valley clinics and hospitals have seen the work and value of shaman, too, and some are even collaborating to ensure optimal outcomes for Hmong patients.

It’s all about blending and embracing different cultures and practices in a global era.

Inspiration from rural Mexico

UCSF School of Nursing master's student Jenny Mendez Butler in Chiapas, Mexico
Jenny Mendez Butler, UCSF School of Nursing, in Chiapas, Mexico

Jenny Mendez Butler, who graduated June 1 from UCSF with a master’s in nursing, will start a new career as a primary care nurse practitioner – and with global health a clear “given.”

“Born and raised in Guatemala, I was surrounded by painful disparities everywhere --disparities in opportunities, education and health care that left a mark in my heart,” she said. “Along my journey as a nursing professional, I have witnessed heart-wrenching disparities in health care in the U.S. and abroad.”

“For me, working towards improving health care access in my community and beyond is a moral ticking clock,” said Butler.

Before entering the UCSF master’s program, Butler worked as an acute care floor nurse, caring often for people – mostly African Americans and Latinos – with serious complications of type 2 diabetes. At UCSF, she chose to minor in diabetes care and looked for opportunities to study global health and do international work.

A 2017 UCSF course in Chiapas, Mexico, -- collaborating with an NGO to implement an innovative shared medical appointment (SMA) system for people with type 2 diabetes in rural clinics – was “right up my alley.” She applied for the program and got one of two student spots on the UCSF team of Carolina Noya, associate clinical professor in the School of Nursing’s Department of Family Health.

In early September of last year, the team planned and conducted SMAs in two rural clinics with resident doctors, other nurses and community health workers. “Unfortunately, we had to cancel visiting a third clinic because of an 8.1 earthquake off the coast of Chiapas that took place the night before our visit,” said Butler.

In the devastation, however, she found the people of Chiapas to be “beautiful, strong, resilient and community-focused.”

“When the earthquake hit, they made sure their neighbors were safe,” said Butler. “After the natural disaster, they were brave. They did not wait to pick up the broken pieces. They didn’t wait to begin cleaning the debris out their front doors, fixing the roofs the morning after the earthquake, and filling potholes in the road with the rubble from the damaged walls and tile roofs.”

“Their resilience is what most impressed me,” she said. “I realized then that they have endured longer lasting difficulties than what this earthquake had left behind; they’ve endured sickness, poverty, lack of opportunities and resources.”

Along with that inspiration, was the project’s successful work. “Expanding the use of shared medical appointments is an effective response to the growing need for cost effective management of chronic diseases.,” said Butler. “I’ve come to appreciate how life-changing patient empowerment and patient activation can be. Those elements explain the how and why SMAs work. I look forward to promoting SMAs for chronic conditions in low resource settings locally and abroad.”