The students file out of the hospital into the warm, humid air. It's hot out here in the sunshine, hotter than it was in the hospital, but the breeze helps a bit.
I do a quick check of the student’s faces again, looking for signs, seeing how they’re doing.
Becca is squinting, probably due to the sudden change in light levels.
A few, like Joe, are writing notes in their journals.
Allie is staring off into the mid-distance. . .thinking.
We’ve been in Guatemala for about 48 hours, so culture shock is in full swing. On top of that, our team of a dozen students (and two faculty) have just wrapped up our first visit to a rural healthcare facility in an impoverished area of the country.
So it’s really culture shock on top of culture shock.
“How are you doing?” I ask Allie.
“I’m okay,” she says. “It's just. . .” Her voice trails off. Thinking. Processing.
“It's just - and this is going to sound strange, Dr. Rust - but. . .I didn’t believe you.”
And with that, Allie has just summed up one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my 10+ years as an educator:
It's all about the experience.
We can have class after class, lecture after lecture, assignment after assignment about pain points. I can talk with students all semester long about the various challenges facing the global health community. About under-resourced hospitals that are working with limited supplies and medicine. About inequity and social justice, and the systems that perpetuate bias.
But until they experience it themselves, see an overcrowded hospital, with patients sitting on the floor, and broken equipment piled up in the hallways. . .it doesn’t really sink in.
Experiences matter. Experiences can connect engineering knowledge with the real need for that knowledge to be applied.
Experiences can fuel the development of a mindset focused on improvement and progress.
Over the past decade, I’ve been fortunate to take over 100 students like Allie to Central America as part of the Global Health & Technology course I teach at Western New England University.
It is easily the most rewarding experience I’ve had as an educator, and one that I feel truly lucky to have been a part of.
Of course, not every student is going to be able to complete a field experience in a developing country. That’s just not practical on a variety of levels. But there are a variety of experiences that we can cultivate for our students, both inside and outside the classroom, that can provide similar value.