EDITORIAL: Why choose an international MPH?

By Joanne AMLAG

Earlier this year, I attended the International Mental Health Congress in Lille and had the pleasant surprise of running into a MPH student from my alma mater. I introduced myself after listening to his research presentation and we began the predictable conversation that often occurs when two people from the same city meet in another country.

I asked him why he decided to travel half-way around the world to present his thesis work in France. He mentioned his membership with the World Federation for Mental Health, the host organization, but most importantly he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit Paris after the conference. I smiled all too knowingly and nodded.

In return, he asked why I left one of the top ten MPH programs in the United States to study public health in Paris. This was not the first time I had been asked this question so my script was well memorized and on the ready. Yet, my ever growing list of reasons for choosing this international MPH program never ceases to amaze me.

Fellow classmates have similar reasons and reflections about our first year, but what continues to humble me is how personal their stories are. Every story is an interesting journey that has led each individual to the program from different countries for various reasons.

There are a multitude of explanations for why people choose an international program, and many of those motivations seem common sense: international perspective, cheaper tuition (for North Americans), explore a dynamic city, learn a new language, global networking, and for the few local students, the convenience of maintaining residence while obtaining all of the above.

But wait there’s more.

There is so much to gain from an international program, although it can be difficult to identify at first glance. Specifically, I’ll attempt to illuminate my reflections on the past year and what I’ve gained so far from choosing this international MPH program:

Imagination

We can only imagine a better world when we know what that means for everyone.

Attending class everyday with students from 17 different countries was a fascinating forum for discussion and education (second year we’ll represent over 20 countries). In honesty, it can also be downright challenging. Imagine 28 students from various countries with opposing belief systems and histories of conflict, then ask them to find solutions for female genital mutilation in Somalia or suicide rates in France or air pollution in China or the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. With guidance from our professors at Columbia University, UNC Chapel Hill, UC Berkeley, INSERM, Sciences-Po Paris, London School of Economics and with other experts students learned from each other and imagined new possibilities.

Cultural Competency

Talking about cultural competency is like learning to swim without water; being culturally competent is a process that requires participation and patience.

During undergraduate education, I was exposed to cultural competency training. Issues around race, gender, socioeconomic status, and the influence of social determinants of health were deeply integrated into public health curriculum. Yet, this MPH program continues to foster new cultural complexities, both implicit and explicit. Real world problem solving is messy and solutions are rarely obvious. I believe students graduate with the unique kind of wisdom that only an international classroom can provide.

Professional Skills

Let’s step out of the ivory tower for a moment and get our hands dirty with real work.

I would rather work than sit in a classroom all day, but perhaps that’s the American in me (a difficult thing to unlearn). Although, valuable skills definitely developed from the constant and perpetual presence of group projects. I predict and envision all my peers cringing in horror merely at the words: group project. But from personal professional experience and affirmation from MPH alumni, these dreaded group projects force differing personalities to cooperate and build skills in team work.

Every module included at least one group project accompanied with group presentations, group meetings and/or group papers as well as individual assignments and exams. In many ways, team work can bring out the best or the worst in people. In reality, the workplace is similar, often not as forgiving, and most especially in a field like public health where diverse individuals must work together towards a common goal.

Personal Growth

Let’s not forget we moved to Paris where people speak French, and the majority of us left family, friends and all worldly possessions back home.

There is something to be said about what individuals can bring to an organization or a particular project. In my experience of sitting through interviews and seeking employment as well as serving on hiring committees and selecting new employees I have learned that professional maturity and “team-fit” can be equally as important as technical skills. The type of personal growth inherent to this international MPH program is formidable. Friendships are forged, international networks are built, and the perseverance to overcome adversity provides a perspective that is invaluable in any workplace.

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