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A Generation's "Defining Challenge"

Jhilam Biswas '05 and Shivani Parmar '05 tend to finish each other's sentences. "Where I have weaknesses," says Biswas, "she has strengths, and vice versa." Biswas is the founding director of the Dartmouth Coalition for Global Health, and Parmar is editor-in-chief of the Coalition's journal, Standpoints. Together they coordinate undergraduate involvement in world health concerns, a broad set of issues they believe to be their generation's defining challenge.

The Coalition is part of a rapidly growing movement among students, faculty, alumni, and staff to bring the strengths of a Dartmouth education to bear on the complex factors that contribute to health and illness around the world.

Denise Anthony, Jhilam Biswas, Shivani Parmar, and Kenneth Yalowitz
L-R, Members of the Dickey Center Global Health Roundtable: Assistant Professor of Sociology Denise Anthony , seniors Jhilam Biswas and Shivani Parmar, and Dickey Center Director Kenneth Yalowitz

The Coalition is sponsored by the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, where the Center's campus-wide Global Health Initiative (GHI) has become the focus of many programmatic and curricular activities related to global health. The GHI is coordinated by an interdisciplinary faculty steering committee composed of representatives of the professional schools and the arts and sciences. According to Dickey Center Director Kenneth Yalowitz, "the students' commitment to better understanding and responding to the challenges of global health reinforces the ideals of former President John Sloan Dickey."

A former U.S. Ambassador to Belarus and Georgia, Yalowitz has seen firsthand how the effects of disease across populations can halt the growth of political systems in critical areas of the world. "Health issues have a devastating impact on economic, social, and political development," he says. "The headlines may not be as compelling as war or violence, but the long-term effects are just as destructive."

Putting the Pieces Together

Yalowitz chairs the Dickey Center's Global Health Roundtable, on which Biswas and Parmar serve. The Roundtable is another activity of the GHI, which brings together a broad variety of groups at Dartmouth involved in global health issues. Roundtable members meet each term to take stock of ongoing programs, suggest new approaches, and generate creative connections. At a recent session, Richard Waddell, research assistant professor of medicine, described Dartmouth Medical School's (DMS) partnership with Tanzania's Muhimbili University College of Health and Science and the DARDAR (Dartmouth College/University of Dar es Salaam) Health Programs. The DARDAR programs include a randomized trial of a vaccine to prevent tuberculosis in persons with HIV, combined with a plan to build a facility for the care of children with AIDS. DMS is also offering a new elective course in infectious disease and international health in Tanzania.

Ellen Stein, assistant dean of academic and student affairs at the Thayer School of Engineering, described how the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders is designing a badly needed solar-power system for the Tanzania clinic and a water-distribution system for a clinic in rural Nicaragua. Professor of Medicine and of Psychiatry Joseph O'Donnell detailed the activities of the six-year-old Dartmouth-Kosova program, carried out in conjunction with the University of Pristina School of Medicine, where physicians and medical students are helping rebuild the region's devastated healthcare infrastructure.

"In many ways," wrote Peter Colabuono '04 in the most recent issue of Standpoints, "Pristina is like a satellite of Hanover, given that the entire network of Kosovar students [has] participated in the Dartmouth-Kosova exchange program since 2000."

The Ochieng brothers, Milton '04 and Fred '05, reported progress on a rural clinic in their native village of Rongo, Kenya. Milton, now a medical student at Vanderbilt, tells the group he got involved in the effort as an undergraduate through a Tucker Foundation program. He is now working with the government in Rongo on an exchange of land for labor. "I don't only struggle with medical issues," he explained. "I struggle with the question of how to keep a clinic alive-how to keep it supplied with medicine, power, and basic services."

Milton Ochieng played soccer at Dartmouth, as does his brother Fred, now a senior majoring in biophysical chemistry. They continue to work with the Tucker Foundation to involve more students in the clinic project. Milton has been in touch with Grassroot Soccer founder Thomas S. Clark '92, DMS '01, who has indicated he is willing to donate his innovative AIDS awareness curriculum to the clinic.

"I have asked Milton to join a network of groups using our program," says Clark. "This allows us to understand how it is being used and the barriers groups face, which is information we need to help other groups better in the future."

Biswas and Parmar described their pivotal role in coordinating tsunami relief efforts in January, which raised over $7,600 for aid agencies.

A Supportive Environment

What lies behind this emerging impulse to address global health issues? "Everyone's going to get sick at some point," says Parmar. "The difference is that we live in a world where individual illness can quickly translate into a massive public health issue."

"Dartmouth's focus on interdisciplinary learning can really make a difference now," adds Biswas. "Health doesn't only come from medicine. It comes from clean water, good communications, viable infrastructure, environmental factors. People who understand organizations and systems are the ones who have the most to contribute."

Biswas and Parmar met as first-year students, and their friendship was galvanized by internship experiences. While Biswas was working at an AIDs clinic in Kolkata, India, Parmar was doing late-night stints on the California AIDS Hotline and conducting public-policy research. "I noticed that those involved in public-policy work were instrumental in getting medicines to people," says Parmar. "I didn't want the message to get lost," says Biswas about the transition back to Hanover from India. "There was huge interest among students to get involved with global health but no mechanism to share ideas."

"So we created one," adds Parmar.

"Dartmouth provides so many opportunities," says Biswas. "At some point, you find your direction. When that happens, you can follow your passion because the support is there."

By LAUREL STAVIS

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Last Updated: 5/30/08