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Students gain global insight into emergency preparedness

School of Public Health study abroad program gives Aggies a chance to learn about international emergency preparedness efforts
SPH study abroad students holding Texas A&M banner

An innovative five-week study abroad program organized by the Texas A&M University School of Public Health is helping students learn more about efficient emergency preparedness efforts in Europe.

This study abroad, which is among the first of its kind globally on this topic, is coordinated by Angela Clendenin, PhD, an instructional associate professor in epidemiology and biostatistics.

“With climate change and growing populations, disasters and emergencies are having increasingly global impacts,” Clendenin said. “There’s so much that countries around the world can learn from each other in terms of mitigating the impact of natural and man-made disasters and protecting the public’s health.”

Designed to broaden horizons

Planning for the study abroad began in 2017 when Clendenin initially contacted Jeremy Wasser, PhD, of the Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences for his advice. In turn, Wasser, who has organized these types of student enrichment programs before, connected her with Akademie für Internationale Bildung (AIB), an international academic organization that serves as a logistics partner for education abroad opportunities. That connection proved to be fortuitous as AIB connected Clendenin to a United Nations organization that does fundraising for humanitarian aid and other groups involved in public health and emergency preparedness.

The immersive study abroad program launched in 2018 with 10 students and doubled to 20 Aggies in 2019. Despite being canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in this study abroad opportunity continues to grow. In 2023, 28 Aggies participated in this summer experience, which regularly incorporates new education experiences.

“Every year, I meet new partners that love working and engaging with our students,” Clendenin said. “I’m really lucky because I have a lot of support from the School of Public Health and the university for what I’m doing as well as from my German colleagues.”

Getting the European perspective

This year’s study abroad participants enjoyed a wealth of educational experiences, including visiting the Robert Koch institute, which is the German equivalent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Koch Institute officials described the organization’s response to COVID-19 and shared how researchers are studying how artificial intelligence can improve surveillance systems for the next pandemic.

This level of planning impressed the Aggies. “I was amazed by the meticulous planning shown by the German approach,” said Praisy Johnson ’21 ’24, a Dallas, Texas, student who is earning a master’s degree in public health in epidemiology. “Their commitment to preparation and rapid implementation of strategies during disasters was remarkable. The United States can learn from Germany’s approach, to ensure that we continuously evolve and enhance our emergency preparedness efforts as well.”

Participants also took a field trip organized by Technisches Hilfswerk, a German federal agency for technical relief operations that provides boots-on-the-ground assistance during emergencies. The most recent field trip took the Aggies to the Ahr River Valley, which experienced severe flooding in 2021. Students saw the communities that were flooded, heard why there was so much damage, and learned about what the communities and responders faced and the recovery actions that still need to be completed.

The study abroad participants also took part in a number of educational tours to learn more about public health issues or to see culturally important sites, such as the Cologne Cathedral. For example, students participated in the Refugee Voices Tour in Berlin. Led by a Syrian refugee, the tour highlighted points of interest from World War II while also describing Syrian refugees’ flight. The study abroad participants also visited World Hunger Help, a humanitarian aid organization, and heard a lecture and interacted with German college students at the Technical College of Arts and Sciences in Cologne.

These various experiences, which highlight the differences in approaches to emergency preparedness between the United States, Germany, and other European countries, engaged the Aggies’ critical thinking skills. “I wanted to learn more about the world to make better decisions since I would understand multiple perspectives,” said Adrian Barajas ’24, a pre-med public health major from Laredo, Texas. “This invaluable skill will help me act more honorably and diligently, which will help ensure equity occurs.”

Becoming a global citizen

During the study abroad, the students are based in Bonn, Germany, where they live with host families. Immersed in German culture, the Texas A&M students learn to navigate Germany’s public transit system and become acquainted with the country’s emphasis on environmental protection and recycling.

For some participants, this trip marked their first airplane travel or visit to another country. “This was my first time abroad,” said Laura Vegas ’24, a Freeport, Texas, native who is majoring in public health. “I’m always going to recommend this type of experience to friends because it opens lenses to different perspectives and introduces you to others. I felt safe and guided by my hosts and even forgot that I was in another country.”

This study abroad also helps students begin to understand their place in the world. “It was really exciting seeing what the students experienced through reading their final reflections about what it was like to be ‘the other’ instead of talking about the other. They also contemplated what they are bringing home from their journey abroad,” Clendenin said. “During the trip, we also talked about becoming global citizens because the problems we’re facing now are not American or Texan or Aggie problems; they are world problems. Being a global citizen comes with responsibility—and what are you going to do about it?”

Expanding opportunities

The relationships formed through this study abroad also are creating new opportunities in the future. “Not only are we engaging students in an international setting, which in and of itself is transformational, but we’re building new educational opportunities for them so if they want to do something overseas, there may be opportunities there,” Clendenin said.

For example, Clendenin is beginning to have conversations with a German colleague about setting up an international practicum for Texas A&M master’s students to work for a company that does emergency preparedness consulting. Additionally, Garett Sansom, DrPH, an assistant professor in environmental and occupational health who helps instruct the study abroad course, has identified potential research opportunities with the German academic partners.

Ultimately, students are grateful for these types of opportunities to be immersed in other countries and cultures. “This study abroad program was excellent, and I learned an incredible amount,” Barajas said. “It was a perfect blend of having instructive class time while still having time to immerse yourself in the culture to learn invaluable perspectives. The program was great, and I would definitely encourage anybody to sign up for this life-changing experience.”

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