A Window to the World

The Dalai Lama once wrote, “With realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world.”

It’s a timeless quote with universal relevance, and one that is particularly meaningful to students at the University of Lethbridge who have travelled to Africa as part of the Malawi Field Study program.

Since the Faculty of Health Sciences began offering the field study in 2008, 48 U of L students have taken their learning to Malawi and 14 more are registered to go this spring. Their objective: to conduct culturally relevant health-promotion activities in Malawi in relation to the diseases of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS, and to explore the complexities that arise in such an endeavour due to cultural differences, traditional practices and societal beliefs.

“The program is designed to help students learn about global health and how populations achieve health in other parts of the world,” says U of L nursing professor Dr. Jean Harrowing (BSc ’78), who along with U of L fine arts professor Lisa Doolittle, established and now co-ordinate the program. “The students come to understand that global is local, and local is global – that some of the challenges people face in a place like Malawi aren’t necessarily all that different than some of the challenges people face here.”

The Malawi program is one example of the Faculty of Health Sciences’ aim to provide transformational education, nurture intellectual curiosity, engage with diverse populations and promote responsible global citizenship. The Faculty’s dean, Dr.Christopher Hosgood, says that instilling a global perspective in students is every bit as important to the Faculty as providing solid clinical knowledge.  

We offer very different kinds of programming. Some of it is very practice-ready in terms of focus, and some of it is a lot broader with an emphasis on learning how to support populations or individuals on the path toward health and wellness,” he explains. “In either case, our primary goal is to graduate health-care professionals who understand that health is multifaceted and affected by many different factors related to location, culture, history, politics and more.”

Photos submitted by Mandy Pack (BA '09), Stacy Peleskey (BN '08) and Anuva Pradhan (BN '09)

The Malawi program is open to U of L students from all disciplines, and instils lessons in community building and cultural understanding. 

“The program helps students understand how complex the world really is, and to see that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to any issue,” Harrowing says. “It offers an ongoing, broad-spectrum type of learning that’s applicable in many ways.” 

When U of L alumna Stacy Peleskey (BN ’08) went to Malawi, she connected with Malawian children and delivered important health messages in ways she never anticipated.  

“Song and dance are integral to Malawian culture, so it was important that we share some of our Canadian culture in that way,” says Peleskey. “I did the ‘moose song’ in almost every classroom we went into. The kids loved it. It gave us an immediate connection and helped break down any barriers getting in the way of the teaching and learning we were there to do.”

Animal antics aside, the Malawi field study was a deeply moving experience for Peleskey, one that changed the trajectory of her life and continues to resonate with her today.

“The Malawi trip was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. It impacted my life at the time and continues to do so even now five years later,” says Peleskey, who works as a nurse in public health. “The opportunity to experience such a diverse culture was unbelievable. It fuelled my nursing career, gave me skills I use today and helped me grow as a person.”

Peleskey’s feelings about the program are shared among her classmates.

“We hear it again and again – the program changes a student’s way of thinking,” says Aaron Maluwa, director of Education Services with Museums of Malawi.  

Maluwa is the U of L’s key contact in Malawi, laying all the groundwork for each trip. In addition to the innumerable logistical details he hammers out, Maluwa plays host, translator and mentor to the student travellers. Simply put, the program wouldn’t be possible without him. 

Maluwa met Harrowing in 2007 when he visited the Galt Museum in Lethbridge as part of a Commonwealth Association of Museums tour, and played a key role in establishing the program that would benefit U of L students and the people of Malawi alike. In recognition of his work, Maluwa received the 2013 Friend of Health Sciences Award, an annual honour given by the Faculty of Health Sciences that recognizes an individual or agency who has made a significant contribution to health education and research at the University of Lethbridge.

While he is honoured to be recognized, his focus remains on the program and the difference it makes in the lives of those affected. 

“Through the fundraising efforts of U of L students, more than 3,000 mosquito nets have been distributed and given to children and pregnant women. This is one of the most reliable methods of malaria prevention,” Maluwa says. “As well, through education and health promotion 4,000 people have been tested for their HIV status, which is an entry point to HIV prevention and management.”

U of L students have also donated soccer balls, sugar, clothes, schools supplies and even a wheelchair to children and HIV-positive individuals. And once they return to Canada, the U of L students are expected to give a public presentation as a way of sharing their experiences and acknowledging the privilege of participating in the service-learning project.

“The U of L students have had a tremendous impact. By delivering messages of health promotion in a culturally relevant way, the Malawian students and communities can adopt and incorporate them into their systems of learning,” says Maluwa. “The Malawi program positively affects everyone involved, not only the people of Malawi, but also U of L students – who are ambassadors of global health promotion at the local and international level. There’s tremendous learning on both sides.”