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Peer Perspectives


“There was something magical about this peer-centered learning and  teaching approach. Students were given space to bring in their own lived experiences.”

— Saron Selassie, MPH ’17

A FEDERAL GOVERNMENT THAT HAS PRIORITIZED THE INCREASE OF DEPORTATION of undocumented immigrants has thrust immigrant health into the forefront as a public health issue. “What used to be a simple traffic stop is now more likely to result in immigrants being apprehended, detained and possibly deported,” says Maria-Elena Young, a doctoral candidate in FSPH’s Department of Community Health Sciences (CHS). “This is a major health concern not just for individuals who are apprehended and their family members, but also for immigrants whose distrust and feelings of insecurity weigh on their mental and physical health.”

Last June, students in the class CHS296, “Immigrant Health in an Era of Mass Deportation,” explored the impact of the U.S. immigration detention and deportation systems on health inequities among immigrant communities, with a focus on better understanding their role as future public health professionals. In addition to learning about and discussing the issues, the students took field trips to a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico and a detention center in Adelanto, California. They met guest speakers representing immigrant-rights advocacy groups — potential partners in their future public health work.

Students holding certificates
Students in "We Gon' be Alright: Addressing Racism and Anti-black Violence as a Public Health Crisis."

Beyond the highly topical nature of the material, what made CHS 296 especially notable was that it was student-driven. Young, whose doctoral research focuses on how immigrants’ health is affected by their legal status and the policies related to detention and deportation, facilitated the course under the supervision of Dr. Steven P. Wallace, professor of CHS. Because of her research, Young was approached by a group of MPH students that included those who had developed and facilitated the first offering of CHS 296 in the spring of 2016, “We Gon’ Be Alright: Addressing Racism and Anti-black Violence as a Public Health Crisis,” under the supervision of Dr. Gilbert Gee, CHS professor.

During the 2014-15 academic year, against the backdrop of a series of controversial deaths of black people at the hands of police and the civil unrest that was unfolding around the issues of anti-black violence and racism, a group of FSPH students began to explore how timely social issues might connect to their public health curriculum. “Prior to coming in as students, some of us had participated in activist work and had been tackling health disparities in different contexts,” says Sarah Jane Smith (MPH ’17), part of the student group. “We were looking for a forum to discuss it and grapple with our role in addressing these issues as aspiring public health professionals.”

The students approached Wallace, then chair of the CHS department, and the result was a current events-related student-led course — specifically, for the first year, on anti-black violence and racism. Seven MPH students, in consultation with Gee, developed a syllabus for the course and served as facilitators. In addition to guest lecturers who brought in their expertise, students in the course shared their own perspectives and led discussions.

“There was something magical about this peer-centered learning and teaching approach,” says Saron Selassie (MPH ’17), one of the course facilitators. “Students were given space to bring in their own lived experiences. They came prepared to engage in the material and speak honestly, and after every class we all stayed late, just unpacking what we had discussed and hanging out.” By the end, Selassie says, students demonstrated much more confidence in their ability to explain why racism is a public health issue, as well as a commitment to ensuring that others in their future workplace are aware of its importance and the need to address it.

A similar focus on raising awareness and providing tools for social action guided the 2017 version of CHS 296, on mass deportation. “This was somewhat different from what we usually do in public health, in that we were focusing on the U.S. immigration system as a way to understand the public health impact,” Young says. “I wanted to connect that understanding of the immigration system with where the students would be working, so that they will be able to educate others and serve as catalyzing forces for change.”

Students at APHA
Students presented at the 2016 American Public Health Association annual meeting.

For Young, facilitating the course was an opportunity to synthesize topics she has studied for several years and to think about ways to convey not only foundational information, but also skills and strategies that the students can use to be effective advocates in the future. “All of the students came in with a strong commitment to immigrant health — many were immigrants themselves, and had personal stories to share,” she says. “It was a beautiful mesh of the personal, political and academic.” Four of the student facilitators of the course on racism and anti-black violence — Smith and Selassie, along with Sally Saleh (MPH ’16) and  Amelia Fay-Berquist (MPH ’16) — spoke on their experience to a packed session at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Public Health Association. They were later contacted by students at other schools of public health seeking guidance on student-led courses and other potential actions to address structural inequities and racism as a public health issue. The FSPH students also worked with the Department of Community Health Sciences and the FSPH Diversity Committee to support Young’s mass deportation course and institutionalize a student initiated topics course each year.

“We are excited to see students lead courses that are both about deep learning and how that learning can be applied to action in the field,” says Dr. Jody Heymann, dean of the Fielding School. “Beyond the skills gained by the students who are teaching, when these courses are successful, they markedly increase the ability of all participating to address some of the most critical issues of our time.”