Delphine Mizero doesn’t want to become a doctor because of money, she writes in a booklet introducing the University of Global Health Equity’s inaugural medical class. She wants to become a doctor “because of the incredible work” that saved her life, when she had only just arrived in the world.
“I was born with a tumor in my chest that filled with fluid. My mother told me that there was a hot debate about whether to operate on it or to let me, an innocent baby, die because it was too expensive to get treatment,” Mizero writes. “Because we had no insurance then, the operation was very costly, and my mother sold some assets to afford it. My mother told me that she was also extremely afraid of the operation because she had not heard (of) or seen a baby that young having a surgery. It was hard for my mother to decide, but she later accepted the risk and decided on the operation.”
When Mizero grew older and learned the story, it instilled her with a drive to help underserved communities access better medical care. She attended Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology in Rwanda’s Eastern Province, where she focused on physics, biology, and chemistry, captained the soccer team, and interned at a local health clinic.
Then she applied to UGHE, a Partners In Health initiative in the rural, northern Rwanda community of Butaro. Mizero was one of 685 applicants, all vying to be the first students to undertake the groundbreaking university’s six-and-a-half-year medical program. Thirty students made the cut, creating an acceptance rate of just more than 4 percent. That’s on par with 2019 acceptance rates for medical schools at Harvard University (3.4 percent), the University of Chicago (4.8 percent), and Johns Hopkins University (6.1 percent), for example.
UGHE made gender equity a priority in admissions, as part of efforts to increase the number of female doctors in Rwanda and beyond. The Class of 2025 is comprised of 20 women and 10 men, all from Rwanda—and all, like Mizero, with personal experiences of inadequate health services that have inspired them to work toward positive change in their home country.
Benitha Uwera, for example, said her mother has had long-term lung issues, and her father has battled significant spinal problems.
“My parents both went all the way to India to get cured, but nothing has really improved their health condition,” she writes, in the same booklet as Mizero. “I saw my parents in so much agony and pain, and I had a desire since my childhood to grow up and become a useful doctor who will help sick and suffering people. Also, many people are still unnecessarily dying in rural areas, because the hospitals are too far away, and for others, they are economically disadvantaged.”
UGHE’s mission and curricula are designed to train doctors who will help meet that exact need. The private, independent UGHE was launched in 2015, as a Partners In Health initiative with significant investment and collaboration from the government of Rwanda. Construction of the university’s 250-acre campus began a year later. Partners In Health is known locally as Inshuti Mu Buzima, and has worked in Rwanda since 2005. In January, a distinguished crowd of government and global health leaders, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, formally opened the campus with a celebratory inauguration, and Master’s in Global Health Delivery students moved in.
The newly arrived medical students now have joined them, adding to an increasing bustle around UGHE’s dorms and academic buildings.
“The inaugural cohort of medical students is great,” said Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, UGHE’s vice chancellor and a former Rwanda Minister of Health. “They are motivated, with a clear vision, and are ready to contribute to improving the health status of their country, leaving no one out.”
UGHE’s nationally accredited medical program confers a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery/Master of Science in Global Health Delivery, combining a bachelor-level medical degree with the university’s existing master-level global health degree.
The curriculum will build upon existing requirements for medical doctors in Rwanda and across East Africa, with academic innovations designed to train a new generation of health professionals who strive to deliver more equitable care.
Studies begin with six months of introductory coursework to establish an academic foundation around themes including patient care, health sciences, and social determinants of health. Just across a valley, the nearby, PIH-supported Butaro District Hospital will help students gain firsthand medical experience during the program, which will emphasize hands-on learning with patients and health systems in rural areas.
Incorporating UGHE’s existing Master’s in Global Health Delivery into the medical program will ensure that graduates not only gain a solid foundation in the health sciences and clinical practice, but also acquire the knowledge and management skills needed to build and maintain effective, equitable health systems.
Students will put that education and training into practice directly after graduating. Each of UGHE’s new medical students has signed an agreement known as umusanzu, which means “contribution” in the local language of Kinyarwanda. Under umusanzu, students pledge to work with the government of Rwanda in underserved communities for at least five years after completing their studies, in exchange for a full scholarship to UGHE. The scholarships are funded by private charitable contributions.
Umusanzu is at the heart of UGHE’s mission of building the next generation of global health leaders. The university believes that financial capacity should not determine someone’s ability to pursue a career in global health, and that removing financial barriers to education will create a more diverse field of medical professionals and lead to more equitable health outcomes.
“We take pride in providing equitable access to health sciences education, as we believe that equity in education is the basis of equity in health care,” said Professor Abebe Bekele, UGHE’s founding dean of health sciences. “We do not want our students to pay us back for the education they receive here, but rather we want them to pay it forward by serving those who have lacked access to quality health care in the past.”
That commitment seems to align closely with Mizero’s goals. She said she’s looking forward to the medical program’s community involvement and comprehensive curriculum, which extends beyond clinical care to develop humanitarian values, such as cultural literacy and social justice.
“I am highly concerned about the general well-being of the community, especially the least privileged, underserved, and most vulnerable,” Mizero wrote. “Thank you again, UGHE, for being a ladder on which I climb up to achieve my dream."