A group of University of Iowa students spent their spring break in Xicotepec, Mexico, studying food systems as part of a service-learning course.
Thousands of tourists flock to Mexico for spring break every year, but few of them conduct field research during their visit like a group of University of Iowa students did in March.
Dubbing themselves the Public Health Posse, the team of seven undergraduate and graduate students along with instructor Brandi Janssen traveled to Xicotepec, a small city in central-eastern Mexico, as part of a weeklong, interdisciplinary service-learning course.
Coordinated with the support of Rotary International, the course has developed long-standing service projects with the UI colleges of pharmacy and dentistry. It was the first year that a group of public health students took part.
“Our task was to identify opportunities for future public health projects that would be beneficial to the community,” says Janssen. Because Janssen’s area of study is food systems, the needs assessment was framed through that lens.
“Mexico is seeing a significant rise in diabetes and obesity, so we looked at schools and the food environment overall. We photographed and mapped grocery stores and markets and spoke to local people to answer questions like, What is the access to fruit and vegetables? What is the proportion of junk food to healthy food in stores? What are the greatest needs?”
“Every time we passed a place that sold food, we took GPS coordinates on our phones,” adds course participant Nichole Nidey, a doctoral student in epidemiology. “Our goal was to create an interactive map of the area to see where there are gaps in availability of nutritious food.”
The “story map” incorporates photos the group took during visits to public and private schools, an orphanage, a university, a hospital, a bakery, DIF (a state-run family services program), markets, grocery stores, and a coffee factory.
“The local Rotary was critical to making connections,” Janssen says. “We had a Rotary host at the institutions we visited in the mornings. In the afternoons, we were our own and went out to talk to shopkeepers and vendors.”
Those unscripted afternoons—along with other unknowns that come with international travel—often stretched students in new ways.
“Unlike a structured lab or classroom environment, you can’t plan for everything. This is exploratory fieldwork,” explains Janssen, an anthropologist by training. “You get out there, try things, and talk to people.”
And sometimes you get lucky. The group didn’t have a translator, but fortunately two of the students spoke fluent Spanish. And though varied in ages and backgrounds, the students quickly gelled as a team.
For Nidey, the trip was well worth it. “As a PhD student, I don’t get a lot of time out in the field. I wanted to do public health work in the field instead of behind the computer. It was eye-opening to get a glimpse of life in Xicotepec.” Nidey was one of four students on the trip who received a Global Public Health Student Travel Grant offered by the college. The grants were made possible by a gift to the College of Public Health from Dale and Linda Baker, whose gift also supported Janssen’s travel. The course will be available again in spring 2019.
Going forward, Janssen reiterates “that public health is not a fly in–fly out kind of thing,” she says. “We need to put a lot of thought into the programs and make sure they are sustainable.”
Photos by Nichole Nidey, Brandi Janssen, Isabella Brauhn, Megan Helms, Cindy Chavez, Michael Parisi-Mercado, Jack Feng, and Kenni Stearns.
This story originally appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Insight magazine.
Armed with well-researched plans, information-packed slides, and seamless teamwork, six student teams competed for top honors and cash prizes in the inaugural Global Rural Health Case Competition held April 4 at the College of Public Health.
The teams were given a case centered on the ongoing power crisis in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Their mission: to present feasible, sustainable solutions to restore health, hope, and resiliency to Puerto Rico. The teams were tasked with addressing multiple systems such as power, water, health, and communications as well as ideas around infrastructure, policy, and sustainability to prevent this type of breakdown in the future. The students had about two weeks to research and develop their proposals with limited guidance from a faculty mentor.
On competition day, each team had 15 minutes to present their recommendations, followed by 10 minutes of questions from a panel of five judges. The teams were made up of graduate students from a variety of academic backgrounds.
“We had students from 14 different disciplines representing five colleges across the university,” says Vickie Miene, interim director of the Institute of Public Health Research and Policy. “It was really exciting to see the collaboration with public health. All of the teams did an outstanding job.”
Bringing the experience full circle, the winning team has announced that they will donate their winnings totaling $2,500 to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
The top three teams were:
1st place – Aequitas
- Monisa Saravanan, Community and Behavioral Health
- Elijah Olivas, Community and Behavioral Health
- Matthew Poch, Occupational and Environmental Health
- Anthony Emigh, Civil and Environmental Engineering
- Kevin Rivera, Medicine
2rd place – The Iowinners
- Kayla Faust, Occupational and Environmental Health
- Yanni Liang, Occupational and Environmental Health
- Ben Ertl, Industrial Engineering; Finance
- Kylor Sorenson, Health Management and Policy; Business Administration
- Kirsten Carew, Medicine; Business Administration
3nd place – GlobalVill
- Whitney Bash-Brooks, Community and Behavioral Health
- Redwan Bin Abdul Baten, Health Management and Policy
- Catherine Chioreso, Epidemiology
- Arwin Shrestha, Ophthalmology; Cellular Engineering
The case competition was organized by the Institute of Public Health Research and Policy and the College of Public Health’s Global Public Health Initiative. Funding for the case competition was generously provided by John Deere and Dale and Linda Baker.