Why does this professor have 20 bulging suitcases piled in her room?
When Jamie McGloin, HS’20, walked into professor Vanessa Johnson’s room in Ghana, she was both proud and amazed.
“It was like walking into a fort made of suitcases,” said McGloin, who was one of 23 students studying abroad with Johnson last summer as part of a month-long Dialogue of Civilizations course comparing the healthcare systems of the U.S. and Ghana.
More than 20 pieces of rolling luggage were stacked up along the walls—not because Johnson is a clothes fiend, but because she and her students are dedicated to global health equity. Those suitcases were packed to the bursting point with stethoscopes, hygiene kits, computers, baby clothes, diapers, baby wipes, school supplies, and more than 1,000 books.
“We had to get all that stuff to Ghana, so I had each student take two suitcases—one for themselves, and one full of supplies,” said Johnson, an associate professor of applied psychology at Bouvé. “All spring you’d see me rolling empty suitcases across campus on my way back from Goodwill.”
But this wasn’t primarily a goodwill mission. It was experiential learning at its best.
Building cultural competency
For Zoe Harris, HS’20, studying the healthcare system in Ghana had a powerful personal impact. Harris is both black and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on Cape Cod. Her grandmother was a full-blooded Native American, and when Harris completes her education, she hopes to work as a physician’s assistant for the U.S. Indian Health Services.
Harris was fascinated by how Ghana’s healthcare system integrates traditional and Western medicine.
“People in Ghana are very tied to traditional medicine, and many are hesitant to embrace Western medicine,” she said, noting she will face the same issue when she cares for Native American patients.
She was impressed that Ghana accepts this dichotomy and devotes research funding to determine the effectiveness of traditional remedies.
But Harris’ experience with traditional medicine was just a small part of the course.
Students visited urban hospitals, rural clinics, orphanages, schools, and universities. They conducted malaria screenings in villages, distributed mosquito nets, and helped educate young people about hygiene and disease prevention.
“It is one thing to learn about being culturally competent in a classroom, but I think you need to immerse yourself in the day-to-day living of a society to understand its priorities and decision making,” said McGloin.
Connor Holmes, HS’21, was struck by the way Ghana integrates clinical practice with policy development.
“In the U.S., you’re forced to choose between a career in public health policy or clinical work,” he said. “In Ghana, there is more opportunity to do both.”
At Bouvé, Holmes plans to major in public policy with a concentration in epidemiology.
For Amira Nwokeji-Iwuala, HS’20, the Ghana trip was a homecoming of sorts. Although she grew up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, both of her parents emigrated from Nigeria.
“For me, the entire experience in Ghana was just beautiful,” she said. “It made me want to get more in touch with my roots. I would call my mom every day and tell her how much I love Ghana.”
Shadowing the public health nurses in the West African country also changed her career path. She now plans to apply to the PlusOne master’s program, pursue a nursing degree, and work with underserved populations in the U.S. “I learned a lot about the nuances of how culture and healthcare influence one another,” she said.
Professor Johnson leads two trips to Ghana each summer—one comparing healthcare systems and the other focused on education.
One unforgettable moment came last summer at a middle school in a poor coastal community. Johnson had visited the school on earlier trips and noted its desperate need for a computer lab. In Ghana, all students take their high school entrance exam on a computer, even if they’ve never had the opportunity to use one. As a result, students from poor communities are at a huge disadvantage.
“The kids at this school were learning about computers with a paper keyboard on their desk and computer tower drawn on the blackboard,” she said.
Before the trip, Johnson and her students raised $2,500 to buy three laptops, and the father of one of the students donated another seven computers from his business. When they wheeled those suitcases up to the school, they made quite a splash.
“We were like rock stars,” Johnson recalled.
School officials were so thrilled by the gift that they named the space “The Professor V.D. Johnson Computer Lab.”