Nicole Jabo, 25, assessed the financial burden of type II diabetes on adult patients in her home country of Rwanda.
Her classmate Leila Dusabe, a 27-year-old from Burundi, examined barriers to voluntary male circumcision, hoping to increase rates of a practice that’s widely viewed as a preventative measure against HIV.
They described their capstone projects earlier this year while seated in a well-equipped classroom—flat-screen monitor, Wi-Fi connectivity, whiteboards, movable tables and walls—at the University of Global Health Equity, a Partners In Health initiative in northern Rwanda. Joining them were two of their classmates: 34-year-old John Bosco Kamugisha, from southern Uganda, and 37-year-old Peter Muriuki, from Nairobi, Kenya.
The projects are the culmination of their studies in UGHE’s one-year Master of Science in Global Health Delivery program, which 24 students, including these four, began in September and completed this month. They have been the first class to live and study full-time on UGHE’s new campus, formally inaugurated in January in the rural region of Butaro.
Mountains surround the campus, which is not far from Volcanoes National Park—extinct volcano Mount Muhabura looms on the near horizon, in fact, its peak sometimes shrouded by clouds. The borders of Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo also are just miles away, close enough that when referring to those countries, people at UGHE often point over nearby hills as if to say, “just over there.”
But as the four students discussed their experiences and work at UGHE, what it meant to be the first class living on campus, and their interactions with the Butaro community, their heads were far from the clouds. They had immediate concerns, such as studying and projects ahead of graduation in August.
Kamugisha's capstone tracked hand hygiene among health care workers at PIH-supported Kirehe District Hospital in eastern Rwanda, to reduce transmission of infections between staff and patients.
Muriuki's capstone sought to better integrate agriculture into prenatal care, by recruiting women in early stages of pregnancy for farming programs that could improve not only their own nutrition, but also their babies’.
“When mothers are better nourished, it means the children are better nourished, as well,” he said.
Dr. Rex Wong, director of UGHE’s Bill and Joyce Cummings Institute of Global Health—and academic leader for the master’s program—said in previous years the capstones were individual projects, conducted independently by students taking classes part-time.
With this year’s advent of full-time students, UGHE staff adjusted the format.
“We wanted to really create a program that’s more applicable to the real world, so we decided to do group projects,” Wong said. “That’s the real world—you have to work with people.”
Students also had to partner with a Rwandan organization for their capstones. Muriuki and his capstone partner, for example, worked with Gardens for Health International to explore prenatal agriculture programs.
“We treat the organization as a client—you see what they need,” Wong said. “That means students are not just creating a project that nobody can use. It’s practical, and mutually beneficial.”
The collaborations also could create networks for students, potentially leading to internships or full-time jobs after they graduate. But UGHE leaders are just beginning to see how that might play out.
“This is our first cohort doing it,” Wong said.
One of many firsts for this year’s class.
UGHE is an initiative of Partners In Health, which strengthens health systems in 10 countries around the world. PIH began working in Rwanda in 2005, and is known locally as Inshuti Mu Buzima. The private, independent university was launched in 2015, with significant investment from the government of Rwanda. Construction of the campus began a year later, with classes and part-time studies temporarily based in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Part-time students complete UGHE’s master’s program in two years, rather than the single-year program that the on-campus students have pioneered.
UGHE’s 250-acre (100-hectare) campus is about 80 miles north of Kigali, with distinctive white buildings adorned with traditional, patterned art known as imigongo. The campus has housing for up to 200 students and staff, a dining hall, and six academic buildings. There’s also a recreation center and outdoor basketball court, a dining hall with floor-to-ceiling windows and locally catered meals, and land for expansion in coming years.
And for several months earlier this year, Jabo and her classmates were the only students living there.
“It feels like you move into this place and you have a house all to yourself,” Jabo said. “It’s been really nice, but we’ve had to be flexible in a way, with all the different changes.”
Those changes have included ongoing construction and touch-ups, and a January inauguration ceremony with guests including Rwanda President Paul Kagame. All of that came along with ongoing preparations for UGHE’s first batch of medical students, who arrived on campus in early July to start a six-year program.
But dealing with a new and changing living situation—while also, of course, completing an intensive, yearlong master’s program—is nothing these students couldn’t handle.
After all, they got to UGHE in the first place. The university received more than 300 applications across 26 countries in 2018, for the 24 spots in this year’s class. The students who made the cut come from 11 countries—there’s representation on campus from Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Nepal, Canada, and the U.S.
Bringing all of those backgrounds together and guiding students to success takes an academic leader with a global outlook. Wong certainly fits that bill: he’s lived in 14 countries, is familiar or fluent in seven languages, and previously directed a hospital management program at Yale University. He also is an engaging, kinetic personality with energy to spare.
But he slows down and smiles when talking about how UGHE’s diverse students have learned from each other and grown over the past year. The only language that’s remotely common to the students’ 11 countries is English, which is the language of classes and educational materials on campus.
Interacting with each other in a shared, mostly non-native language has vastly improved the students’ communication skills and global perspectives, Wong said.
“In September, when I first saw them, they couldn’t even stand up and talk to people—I mean, they could—but you see how they stand up and present themselves now,” Wong said. “It changes month to month and week to week.”
Wong said the student body’s multicultural makeup creates constant lessons inside and outside of UGHE classrooms.
“You cannot even stage it; you just have to let it happen organically,” he said. “We are all learning from each other.”
He mentioned a recent class that included a discussion of needle exchange programs. Many of the students had worked with such programs before, and all contributed different experiences—sometimes with conflicting opinions about cultural norms and practices.
“Just like anywhere else, there are always personality issues and different cultural competencies,” Wong said. “Sometimes you offend people because you didn’t know (their background or perspective). But I think that happens on any campus, anywhere.”
One thing you might not find on just any campus is the high level of poise and personal maturity held by UGHE students. Whether from diverse life experiences or professional expertise, it quickly becomes apparent that these are not the carefree collegians found in many western universities. These are driven, passionate students who are approaching their studies with purpose.
Kamugisha, for example, came to UGHE from Masaka Regional Referral Hospital in central Uganda, where he works in Global Emergency Care.
“Doing this master’s will help me perfect my leadership, managerial and research skills,” he said of UGHE’s global health delivery degree.
Dusabe is a public health practitioner in Burundi, and said her year of study will provide invaluable professional development.
“When I heard about UGHE, I thought about the quality of the education, first of all,” she said. “The exposure and quality of experience I will gain from here will be really good for me.”
Muriuki, the oldest of these four students, said he’s worked for more than 10 years on the research side of the health industry, in areas including maternal and neonatal health, child health, and nutrition, often with vulnerable populations such as people living in Nairobi slums.
“I was ready to upgrade my skills—and that included skills in research, because I saw that UGHE was research-focused,” he said. “Equity in health care is one of the big topics and debates happening around the world, and I wanted to learn what I could do to ensure equity.”
Jabo is the youngest of the four, and the only one who came to UGHE straight from undergraduate education. She graduated last year from the University of Texas at Tyler, about two hours east of Dallas.
She said UGHE felt like an opportunity to immerse herself back into the culture of her home country, and get a close look at Rwanda’s health system.
“One of the things that most drew me here was that I wanted to work and live in Rwanda. It just seemed very timely that this university opened and it aligned with so much of the work I wanted to get involved with,” Jabo said. “It’s like learning about the health system of my country once again, and being an active participant in some of the solutions, now and in the near future.”
Dusabe said the small community on campus this year has enabled a lot of open dialogue with UGHE staff, guest lecturers and professors from institutions around the world, Rwandan health leaders, and others.
“We really hope that continues (in coming years),” she said.
Kamugisha has taken a local focus, doing his best to meet people in the Butaro community surrounding the campus. He attends Mass at a nearby Christian church and takes regular evening walks in the community.
“By now, I know most of the people around Butaro,” he said, adding that residents have been helping him perfect his Kinyarwanda language abilities.
Jabo and her classmates are well aware that being the first students to live and study on UGHE’s still-new campus brings responsibilities, along with the perks.
“I feel like we get to set the tone for even the other students who come after us,” Jabo said. “Whatever traditions and types of things we leave here, will continue for years and years to come.”