eGlobal: UGHE Students Virtually Co-Develop Research with US Student Counterparts

Prof. Abebe Bekele, UGHE’s Deputy Vice Chancellor of Academic & Research Affairs, and Dr. Marcel Durieux, Anesthesiology Professor at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine, on UGHE’s Butaro Campus in 2019. Both are spearheading the development and running of this innovative partnership program.

International partnership has never been more important. Despite the obvious social, cultural, economic, and geographical variances of countries globally, this year they have all fought a common threat; that of COVID-19. Building bridges between countries and sectors, and fostering interprofessional relationships and collaboration between experts from different cultural contexts is critical to advancing discovery and innovation to help counter these threats, and build stronger, more equitable health systems to continue to protect us in the future. Consequently at UGHE, all students are expected to develop cultural competency skills during their time on Butaro campus to develop into holistic-thinkers, capable of driving health gains across different cultural contexts. Of course, this starts with the diversity of their cohorts – hailing from different parts of Rwanda, or globally as with the MGHD and Executive Education courses – and continues through their curricula, which deliberately cover issues of global diplomacy, liberal arts, history, and social-economic issues.

Most recently, this commitment to cultural exchange has materialized through a new international engagement program – eGlobal – whereby UGHE students virtually partner with students from the University of Virginia (UVA) to develop innovative, challenge-based research projects. In August, thirty UGHE medical students (MBBS/ MGHD) were virtually paired with their UVA counterparts, embarking on a year-long engagement exercise that would offer opportunities to practice international partnership, and gain international perspectives on shared issues. The research projects, designed to give students an end-to-end taste of how research is conducted, are both varied and ambitious, tackling a broad spectrum of global health issues such as the opioid crisis, improving the sexual health of adolescents, and the climate impact of humanitarian assistance.

Irakoze Genereuse and Joselyne Nzisabira, two MBBS/MGHD ‘25 students at UGHE, have been working closely with their UVA counterparts for the last four months, developing a project that analyses gender and medical education, specifically,  women in surgery. The subject area has been chosen carefully; in both Rwanda and the US women are matriculating to medical school at similar rates to men, yet male physicians continue to outnumber female physicians in every specialty except pediatrics and gynecology.

‘We hope that our research will improve the number of women in this field, so that the next generation of young women will be motivated to pursue a career in surgery.’ says Joselyne, going on to explain their project highlights both the barriers to and demand for increased numbers of women in the surgical workforce. The different cultural perceptions of each student pair has provided a broader, more holistic perspective on the issue, not only through the US and Rwanda, but also in the country case studies they have reviewed as part of the program’s literature review. ‘All solutions require different lenses.’ reflects Joselyne, ‘The more lenses you have, the stronger your research becomes’. 

The partnership with University of Virginia students has also offered new, broader learning opportunities for UGHE students – and visa versa. ‘The program has been such a valuable opportunity for personal growth.’ Genereuse explains. ‘It’s not only about the research, but also about getting to know one another as students through a cross-cultural approach, and exchanging different learning strategies’. Indeed, Leadership, faculty and staff at UGHE have long understood the value in mentorship and collaborative learning; it is ingrained into every element of the curricula, and realized through dedicated programs such as the Center for Gender Equity’s two-year Mentorship Program and Vice Chancellor’s Summer Internship.

University of Global Health Equity medical students virtually meet their University of Virginia student counterparts, along with program coaches, during an induction session to the eGlobal program.

Now, collaborating virtually with students from another country in a language that is not their first, UGHE’s MBBS students have rapidly learnt skills in adaptability, and prioritization – juggling their MBBS assignments with project milestones, and negotiating time differences for group work with their US counterparts. Whilst their projects are designed to be largely student managed, each project has a small group of mentors assigned, to provide advice and guidance on issues that arise in the project development, as well as an expert lens on the subject area drawing on the collective experience in the field.

This cross-cultural peer-to-peer learning has also been evidently valuable to Joselyne and Genereuse’s student counterparts in the US. ‘Partnering with students from Rwanda is my first time virtually collaborating with students from another country, and supported my personal growth through learning from those with different life experiences’. explains Jamie Lee, one of the two UVA assigned to this group project. ‘We spent a lot of time comparing the education and healthcare system in the US and Rwanda, which opened doors to broader and new perspectives and helped develop a greater awareness of the various issues that healthcare systems face on a global scale.’ 

As part of UGHE’s emphasis on innovation in education, the program is the university’s first foray into ‘e-twinning’- virtually pairing students for an extended period of learning and project co-development. Now, more than ever, the demand for technology-based learning is palpable; with pandemic-related restrictions limiting travel, and the forced closure of many institutions globally to protect staff and students. ‘The pandemic and resulting lockdowns have accelerated our e-learning efforts and provided our faculty, staff and students with a great opportunity to learn about the possibilities of e-learning.’ says Matt Ames, UGHE’s Instructional Technologist and Assistant Professor. ‘UGHE has learned a lot about how e-learning technologies can be used to create innovative learning opportunities for our students. I hope we can expand on this in the years ahead.’ The course is designed to both fit with, and complement their ongoing studies, with twinned pairs expected to plan at least one hour’s interaction a week online. 

Whilst this pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the development of e-learning programs to replace face-to-face teaching, there’s no doubt that it will be here to stay in a post-COVID era. Unparalleled opportunities for cultural exchange have presented themselves to students through virtual group work between two continents – Africa and America  –  and students will graduate the program with enhanced research and collaboration skills as they work together to identify common solutions to global problems. In August next year, the ‘e-twins’ will part ways at the culmination of their projects, paving the way for new innovations in the e-learning space to follow, as UGHE identifies further opportunities to engage global partners for the benefit of its students.