UGHE Graduation: Scholar Lisa Berwa Talks About Holistic Approach to Health

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UGHE student Lisa Berwa was one of 28 students to graduate Sunday and is the northern Rwanda university’s recipient of the 2020 One Health Scholarship, which promotes an interdisciplinary perspective on health. (Photos courtesy of UGHE)

The University of Global Health Equity (UGHE), a Partners In Health initiative in northern Rwanda, will graduate 28 students Sunday from its flagship master’s in science for global health delivery (MGHD) program. This year’s virtual graduation ceremony will award degrees to UGHE’s fifth cohort since the university opened in 2015.

Despite the unprecedented circumstances around COVID-19, each and every student has had access to UGHE’s unparalleled learning opportunities due to the dedication and commitment of the faculty and staff who advance UGHE’s mission on a daily basis.

This year’s class includes students from 12 countries and an array of academic and professional backgrounds. One of those students is Lisa Berwa, a Rwandan who is the recipient of the university’s 2020 One Health Scholarship. The scholarship promotes an interdisciplinary perspective on health, particularly the interconnectedness between human, animal, and environmental health.

This weekend, Berwa will join more than 120 alumni of UGHE’s master’s program, who now are advocating for global health equity in their respective fields.

We spoke to Berwa about the master’s program, opportunities that arose during her time at UGHE, and her plans for the future as a global health leader of tomorrow.

What attracted you to the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE)?

I think it was this idea of a novel school. When I read up about UGHE, I realized they offered teaching in a non-traditional way. Their curricula was focused around health equity, and how this applies within low-resourced settings. It was exciting to me that this was offered in a country like Rwanda, which is a developing country, but also my country of origin.

I studied the curricula and it seemed to me to combine everything I wanted to learn, especially the opportunity to visit and learn from communities (nearby in Butaro), and the practical aspect of learning in a rural setting.

What surprised you about UGHE after you arrived on campus?

When I arrived at UGHE, I was excited to find that the (MGHD) program’s classes were really challenging the status quo. In each class, we were always encouraged to ask “why.” Very early on at UGHE, I found out that I hadn’t previously been challenging the systems enough, and from the MGHD, I learned how to do this in an effective way and, importantly, a way that would benefit the end user.

UGHE Vice Chancellor Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, center with striped dress, stands with faculty and students, including Lisa Berwa, in the university’s 2020 master’s in global health delivery (MGHD) program.
What lessons did you learn from your classmates during the MGHD year?

First of all, I was someone who came from a different professional background from others in my class. My undergraduate degree was integrated science – looking at agriculture and food systems. When I arrived at UGHE I had learned this aspect of human health, but not as much as some of my class colleagues.

Sitting in the same lectures as doctors, or people who had previous learning experience in pharmacy and neuroscience, was an incredible learning experience as I got to understand a variety of different aspects of human health just by listening to their contributions. It was amazing that this was all happening within one campus.

As I came straight from college to UGHE, my practical experience was little. I had been exposed to short-term internships of between 8-10 weeks, but these were nothing in comparison to the experiences of some of my classmates, who had already worked in treatment centers in rural areas and, as a result, learned the realities of health in low-resourced settings. I enjoyed learning from personal experiences of those around me.

What have you taken away from your experiences learning in Butaro communities?

We learned a lot from our professors, but we also learned a great deal from the community visits that were part of our curriculum. The thing that really stood out to me was (community members’) resilience. We visited families struggling with malnutrition who were willing to share their story with us. The UGHE professors made it very clear to us all that the communities were vital to our learning; they reminded us that while UGHE is contributing to the community, we are also benefiting a huge amount from their unique insights and perspectives.

This removed the power dynamic. Every time we met with community members, we walked away with more knowledge and, critically, their perspectives. These interactions are so critical. We have the responsibility to act upon their stories and advocate for policies that are truly beneficial to them.

As the MGHD ‘20 One Health Scholar, what have you learned about the importance of understanding, and applying the One Health approach in global health?

One Health is composed of human, animal, and environmental health. Often in global health, people focus on one thing. Doctors, nurses, health providers – they often work alone. But this is not sustainable. If we focus on all aspects of health — human, animal, environmental — the whole response will be more effective, from a human perspective as well as a cost perspective.

COVID-19 has shown us the importance of One Health and how it plays into the success of a response to a pandemic. To protect humanity, we must protect animals and the environment, too, and understand how each affects the other.

I also learned that One Health is participatory, meaning it necessitates participation from the community. If you practice a One Health approach in the policies you are hoping to implement, you elevate the people you are serving, from passive recipients of information to active participants in health policy and decision-making.

Equipped with the tools and skills from the MGHD, what do you plan to do in your next chapter?

My passion, built through the skills I have learned at UGHE, is to be able to better translate complex information to the simplest form that speaks to the end user — the person on the ground fulfilling the practical health outcomes — more personally. I also want to combine this interest with my passion for food security and working with marginalized groups, with a particular focus on women and communities in rural areas that are often forgotten.

See the original Q&A and additional photos by UGHE.

Find out more about the MGHD program and other UGHE learning opportunities here.

Every person, no matter who they are or where they’re from, deserves the best health care we know how to offer.

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