Experiential Learning & Teaching in Higher Education


One of the prerequisite skills of effective public health and health practitioners is cultural competency. Cultural competency, however, requires a deep and profound understanding of individuals who are shaped by different life experiences than one’s own. Previous authors have described study abroad and service-learning as established strategies for enhancing cultural competency among emerging health professionals. This article describes how students made meaning of an international study abroad experience in Panama through analysis of student-produced work including reflective journal entries, blog posts, and photo journaling.

In summer 2019, 13 undergraduate and graduate students participated in a four-week travel course to explore the complex and interrelated concepts of population health, health equity, and social determinants of health. Through visits to clinics and health facilities as well as service-learning activities, students identified strengths and challenges to health and health care in Panama. Furthermore, interactions with health officials and community members encouraged students to challenge their own biases and assumptions, which is a first step towards developing cultural competency.

Despite the short duration of this travel course, instructors used intentional pre-departure activities and readings as well as daily reflective essays to scaffold student learning. Moreover, reflective writing assignments provided students an outlet to record their observations of external expressions of culture (i.e., customs, rituals, styles) and internal expressions of culture (i.e., attitudes, habits, norms) and discuss their relevance in terms of health behaviors. This level of deep reflection compelled students to engage more fully in their own learning experience.

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