This past weekend, over 300 members of the GlobeMed network gathered in Evanston, Illinois, the home of Northwestern University and the GlobeMed National Office, to meet, to connect, to share, to learn, and, most importantly, to answer the question, “Why Students?” From April 11-13, students from all forty-nine national GlobeMed chapters convened for the 2013 GlobeMed Global Health Summit. The seventh annual Summit focused on the theme The Student Momentum, examining the unique role students have as global change agents. I’m not going to give you a play-by-play of this weekend. I’m not going to list every event title and speaker name and panel discussion topic. If you are interested in learning more about the specific events and key players in this weekend and this movement, I urge you to explore the stunning GlobeMed Summit participant packet, designed by GlobeMed National Office Staff Member and GlobeMed at Rhodes College alumna Sarah Endres.
Instead I want to share what I took away from this transformational experience. The weekend challenged us to think about three big questions, questions around which I’ve organized this reflection. In no way am I claiming to have answered them. But after throwing myself into this experience, after digesting everything that was said around me, to me, and by me, and after reviewing the pages (and pages and pages) of notes that I took, my eyes are a little bit wider, my head a little bit clearer, and my heart a little bit bigger.
1. What defines our generation?
A full half of the world’s population is under the age of thirty. But it seems that the other half defines us in opposition to itself. We are defined as the “me” generation. We focus on our own achievements and successes. We prioritize earning a salary over thinking about the consequences that our actions have on the larger global community. Yet so many people in our generation are proving that this definition is incorrect. During the panel discussion “Investing in Emerging Changemakers,” GlobeMed Executive Director Maya Cohen asked panelists what they hope our generation accomplishes. Paul Ellingstad, Partnership and Program Development Director at HP Sustainability and Social Innovation, spoke about how the generation above ours views social responsibility: get a job, work hard, succeed, and then give back to the world. Our generation is doing it differently. We’re not waiting to write our own success stories before looking at how our work connects with everything around us. Kalin Werner, a fellow with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and GlobeMed at the University of California—Los Angeles alumna who spoke on the alumni panel, “The Next Chapter,” reminded Summit delegates that they “don’t have to reach a certain benchmark before being able to give something to others.” Our generation is unique in that, contrary to this pervasive stereotype of the “me” generation, we realize that we really do not have all the answers individually. We are using our awareness of, and interconnectivity with, the entire globe to give back now, not later. We want to contribute. We are the first generation that truly has both the desire and the potential to communicate and connect globally.
A pivotal part of the GlobeMed Summit experience is small group discussion. The eight people I grappled over these big questions with impacted me on a deeper level than I think I even realize. One of our discussions focused on our generation’s interconnectivity. Rae Doyle, a delegate from Truman State University and member of my small group, asked us, “What are you doing domestically that’s making an impact globally?” That’s global citizenship. Because of how connected our generation is technologically, we are able to make an impact abroad without ever leaving American soil. We are defined by a striking dichotomy created by the digital world; despite how virtually connected we are, we are so often physically disconnected. We want to learn about the world and get to know its inhabitants, but so many of us never look beyond our computer screen.
Does the fact that our generation lives online allow us to cross international borders, or keep us confined? Jennifer Cruz, another one of my small group mates and a delegate from the University of California—Los Angeles, claimed that we need to be abroad, on the ground with our partners to “see how we can serve the community.” She believes that we’ll have a “larger drive to serve these people” once we build a relationship. I couldn’t agree more, but I need to ask: what does building a relationship mean? How can those of us not fortunate enough to attend GROW internships build meaningful relationships with our partners? In a conversation with Hyacinthe Mushumbamwiza, the Acting Coordinator of the Rwanda Village Concept Project (GlobeMed at George Washington University’s partner organization), delegates were challenged to question if an hour of Skype with their partners was really meaningful, or just ticking off a box. What do we, as a generation, actually need to do to form meaningful relationships? To figure this out, we need to look at the second big question of the Summit:
2. What is our generation called to do?
During Thursday’s opening keynote address, Northwestern University President Morton Shapiro said that the generation before us screwed up the world pretty badly. It’s up to us to fix it. But some people don’t believe we can do that. They see us as the “me” generation. Our generation is called to change that definition. We have to take our desire to contribute and combine it with our potential to connect in order to show the world everything we’re capable of.
globalhealthU is a core part of the GlobeMed experience, and several delegates gave presentations on behalf of their own chapters. Nupur Mital, a delegate from the University of Rochester, spoke about their partner, Kallpa Iquitos, a sexual health clinic in Peru. Nupur acknowledged the gender and age gap between many workers in health centers and the adolescents who frequent them. Both abroad and here in the United States, discussing sexual health is often a taboo subject. A sixteen-year-old girl is uncomfortable enough discussing her sex life. You think she wants to talk about it with a man twice her age? Regardless of what resources are available for her, she’s not going to utilize them if she doesn’t feel comfortable. Sexual health as a field is controversial. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable, a lot of older generations uncomfortable. Youth are the ones who see this need, see the neglect of comprehensive sexual health education and care, and want to do something about it.
Priya Prakash’s chapter at the University of Texas—Austin funded the construction of a health library, the Clinica Ana Manganaro, in Guarjila, El Salvador. Priya emphasized how crucial health education and preventive health measures are to her own chapter members and to their international partner. Our generation is called to take a more holistic, preventive approach to healthcare. We need to educate our peers about sexual health and give them a safe, comfortable environment in which to learn how to practice safe sex. GlobeMed at Truman State College founder and alumnus Dr. Paul Rotert reminded delegates, “You don’t have to be a doctor to play a role in healthcare.” We need people working in healthcare fighting for stronger policies around sexual health, mental health, and all other areas that so often get overlooked. We need to stop focusing on how we can treat ailments and start focusing on how we can prevent them in the first place.
Our generation is called to act. Liberian Peace Activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee delivered the Summit’s Honorary Keynote Address. This “very real and compelling” speech, in the words of my small group mate and University of Wisconsin—Madison delegate Tulika Singh, has stuck “like a little Summit buzz in everyone’s mind.” Gbowee led “Christian and Muslim women in a nonviolent movement that played a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s civil war in 2003,” to quote her bio in the Summit participant packet. These women had a feeling, Gbowee said, that they “are what it’s going to take to change things.” She knew, to her very core, “We have it in us to change this society.” But it takes more than drive, than passion, than “visions for an equal society in the face of misery.” It takes action. And it takes overcoming fear. Gbowee was not fearless; in her words, “leaders are not fearless. Leaders do not allow fear to get in the way. … Fear will be there. You will not allow fear to stop you.” If Gbowee and her followers had “sat on [their] behinds thinking, ‘What would the world think?’ [they’d] still be in the conflict. … [because] the more you sit and rationalize, people’s lives continue to be in danger.”
In an earlier draft of this section, I wrote that Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace did not change things overnight. This is a cliché that means it took them time to accomplish their goal, and of course it did. Gbowee urged us, as future change makers, to “take the time to start small.” Regardless of the passion and drive and anger fueling advocacy, we often need to start small, and we often need to invest a lot of time before we see any tangible change come to fruition. One panelist from “Educating for Global Health: The Role of Universities” made a very simple and yet powerful statement: “Social change is hard. It takes a long time.”
But there is some truth in the statement that Leymah Gbowee made a change overnight. In her keynote, she asked all of us, “What is keeping you awake at night? … Those things that keep us awake at night are the things that will keep us going. … Find that thing that keeps you awake. And work on it.” In a very real way, Gbowee made a change overnight. She saw an injustice that kept her awake at night, and she worked on it. In calling all of us to action, she urged us to ask ourselves, “Do you know what visions were born into you that made you think, ‘I want to be an activist. I want to be a change agent’? … Sit and think about that change you want to bring about,” but then tell yourself, “I’m going to step out and do it.” Our generation is called to “see service to humanity as a mandate.”
It’s impossible to serve humanity without treating every member of humanity with dignity and respect. In the participant packet given to every delegate, the GlobeMed Summit Team wrote that “GlobeMed has strengthened the movement for global health equity by empowering students and communities to work together to ensure every human life is treated with equal value.” Our generation is called to treat every human life with equal value. We need to treat all humans as humans, in the most fundamental ways – medically and personally. In terms of how we provide others healthcare, we need to think of every human as a family member. Paul Rotert, Truman State alumnus and first-year Family Medicine Resident at University of Illinois—Chicago, made the comment in our small group that “people receiving a certain level of care right now aren’t willing to make sacrifices for people they don’t know.” But he also emphasized in the alumni panel discussion that medical professionals need to look at the work they are doing with their patients and ask themselves, “If this was your mother or sister, is this how you’d want things to work out?” (And if you’re going to take medical advice from anyone in GlobeMed, take it from Paul. He is, after all, the first GlobeMed doctor).
The need for interacting with people across the globe on this fundamentally human level extends beyond healthcare. As we interact with members of our partner communities, it is imperative that we treat them no differently than we treat our friends, our family, and our local neighbors. Sam Cunningham, a University of Michigan delegate and member of my small group, stressed that we “cannot treat any population as a spectacle.” Another member of my small group, Colorado College delegate Rory Curtin, elaborated on this point in explaining how her GROW internship training prepared her to take photographs. She was told to “take pictures abroad just as you would at home.” Rather than seeing someone or something fundamentally different from oneself and taking a photo of this “spectacle,” we need to adopt Rory’s mindset: “I’m a person taking a picture of a person for other people.” The GlobeMed Summit Team already said it better than I can: We need to treat every human life with equal value. How do we do that? The answer lies in the Summit’s final question:
3. How do we unlock our generation’s potential?
Our generation is called to change how we interact with humanity. We are called to treat everyone as human. How do we do that? By treating ourselves as human. So often when we think of social change, we imagine what the world needs and forget about what we need. So often when we think of global health, we forget that we need to look out for our own health as well. If we are truly going to do transformational work, we better be passionate about it. In the panel discussion “Youth-driven Change: Conversations with Peers and Partners,” National Office Director of Partnerships Alyssa Smaldino moderated a discussion with peer and partner organizations. This honed in on the necessity to identify personal passions and unique assets to bring to the movement. We can unlock our generation’s potential by bringing our full selves to the work that we do. Margo Watson, panelist and Executive Director of FACE AIDS, said that change makers need to “find the job that you don’t turn off when you clock out.” Panelist and Founder and Executive Director of Allowance for Good Elizabeth Newton implored us, “Stay alive in your work.” Alyssa said we should always “go home with no doubts about what you did at work.” Margo responded to a delegate’s question about balancing life with work by saying that rather than searching for a work/life balance, we should search for work/life alignment. The work we do must be a fundamental part of who we are.
The other meaning engrossed in this phrase work/life alignment is that sometimes we do need to make sure our work lives and our personal lives are in concert. Kate Mullersman, a 2012 Northwestern alumna who spoke on the alumni panel, acknowledged the stigma around prioritizing personal life over professional life. GlobeMed at Penn State alumnus and Boston University medical student Jon Lichkus faced this dilemma personally, deferring his graduation a year to align his studies with his girlfriend’s. Three weeks ago they were engaged, an announcement that prompted the entire auditorium to applaud (and later, coupled with several glasses of free wine, prompted two other female Northwestern seniors and me to demand a detailed story of the proposal and description of the engagement ring).
More than being fully present within our work (as if living and working with passion is not enough), we can unlock our generation’s potential if we “look for the questions that aren’t being asked, and ask them.” This call to action was said in the panel discussion, “Educating for Global Health: The Role of Universities.” As students, as youth, as people still engrossed in education and learning how best to serve the world, we need to embrace all that it means to be a student. Universities need to create communities of learning that equip us with a set of tools we can then bring out into the world. As students, we need to hold universities accountable for experiential learning. In one of our small group discussions, Paul Rotert reminded us that the world is bigger than this “academic, PowerPoint slide life” that we’re currently living. How can we, as college students, take what we have learned, both in the classroom and in GlobeMed, and translate that knowledge into real-world change?
I’m in a unique position within GlobeMed. I connected with this organization through my work with Allowance for Good, an Evanston-based nonprofit whose mission is to educate and engage youth in philanthropy to cultivate global citizenship and improve education internationally. Through building a partnership between these two organizations, I got to know student leaders in GlobeMed chapters around the country before I even knew those in my own chapter. I know several National Office Staff Members personally and have cultivated a close relationship with an alumni mentor over the past few months. I’m a senior at Northwestern, but I’m also, in the words of my own chapter members, a “GlobeMed freshman.” I only joined the Northwestern chapter this past fall, and to be honest, I did not feel truly engrossed in this community until this past weekend.
It’s this unlikely combination of all these different avenues connecting me to GlobeMed so late in my undergraduate career, coupled with the ingenious insights I’ve gleaned from this past weekend, that have me poised in the perfect position to act as a change maker. The GlobeMed Summit propelled me on a journey to act as an agent of global change, and, as Leymah Gbowee said, “Once you start that journey, nothing, nothing can stop you.”
Mert Iseri, a 2011 Northwestern alumni and co-founder of Design for America, spoke on a Summit panel entitled “Personal Narratives: Working with Purpose.” I thought that attending the Summit this past weekend was taking a risk. I now realize the truth in something that Mert said during this panel: “It’s only after you’ve taken a risk that you realize it might not be that risky.” For my growth as a student, as a member of the GlobeMed community, as a change maker, and as a human being, it would have been so much riskier not to throw myself into this experience.
The drive, passion, and openness of the delegates, alumni, staff, and speakers I met are infectious. When I tell other Northwestern students that I joined GlobeMed as a senior, they ask why I’d ever do that. You’re not pre-med. You’re involved in too many other things already. You’re a senior – you’re supposed to be slacking off, not adding commitments. Yet when I told people I met this weekend that I joined GlobeMed as a senior, they thought it was awesome. These people didn’t come here for a line on a résumé. These people came here because they care. They see the phenomenal work that this organization, still very much in its infancy, has managed to accomplish, and they want to do more.
I did not write this reflection. I did not answer the Summit’s three fundamental questions. The words on this page were written by every single person who came together to make this weekend possible. They were written by the activists, by the movers and shakers, by the people who found what keeps them awake at night and stayed up for it.
I’ll leave you with a line from Leymah Gbowee that really resonated with me. “The world is waiting to hear from you.” As students, as youth, as a generation, and as citizens of the globe, the world is waiting to hear from us.
– Liz Coda