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In virtual exchange, students in California and Lebanon unite to improve refugee health

In the fall of 2018, videoconferencing helped unite 23 Stanford students with 23 fellow students in Beruit, Lebanon, and provided the opportunity to co-develop a project that could help improve refugees’ lives and health.

Traveling in person to a foreign country, either for education or community service, has been the traditional way for students to experience or aid another culture. But today, technology can connect students from distant countries in new ways, and with striking benefits.

Last fall, videoconferencing helped unite 23 Stanford students with 23 fellow students in Beruit, Lebanon, and provided the opportunity to co-develop a project that could help improve refugees’ lives and health.

The class, called "Global Health: A Virtual Exchange Between Lebanon and Stanford," was the brainchild of Keith Bowen, a Stanford graduate student in the School of Education who has spearheaded several virtual student exchange programs at Stanford as part of his dissertation studies.

"Five decades of empirical study have proven the benefits of in-person, international student exchange programs," Bowen said. But in-person exchange programs can be expensive and are not always accessible to students at all income levels, he added. A virtual exchange program can help bring the benefits of exchange programs to more students.

"In a series of trials with virtual student exchange, using pre- and post-exchange surveys in treatment and control conditions, we’ve shown that virtual student exchange reduces stereotyping and improves attitudes among students in Western and Muslim-majority countries," said Bowen. "Accompanying qualitative studies have shown that the exposure to new and different perspectives leads students to produce more mature work and helps them build professional relationships beyond the classes themselves."

The class was co-taught by Michele Barry, MD, senior associate dean of global health and director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health; and Nael Alami, PhD, VP for research and innovation at the Modern University for Business and Science (MUBS) in Beirut, Lebanon. Bowen had introduced Barry to Alami, with whom Bowen had worked on a previous project.

"It’s probably the best class I’ve ever taught in 30 years of teaching," said Barry. "The combination of inspiring empathy and having an action project that was inspired by needs on the ground and watching the teamwork between the Lebanese students and the Stanford students was really inspiring."

In 2017, public health students at MUBS conducted an in-depth analysis of health issues at the Qab Elias refugee camp in Lebanon, a temporary home to thousands of refugees from the Syrian civil war. Their report, along with a 360-degree video they filmed inside the camp, provided the foundation for students in both locations to understand the conditions facing refugees in the camp.

The virtual reality film of the camp "is a compelling experience," Bowen said. "Everywhere you look, in total immersion, you see and hear conditions in the camp. Students report that the experience deepens their understanding of conditions in the refugee camps, as well as their sense of urgency to solve problems."

The class began with instruction in global health, with lectures on pandemics and refugee health in particular. Students then broke into small, internationally mixed groups to study the prior year’s analysis of health conditions at Qab Elias and to collaborate on a capstone project that could contribute to health improvements for Syrian refugees living there. Students also collaborated outside of class, working together via email and videochat services.

The potential benefit to Syrian refugees, whose physical and mental health conditions and risks were the subject of the class, was important to Barry. Early in her career, she started one of the first refugee health clinics in the United States, at Yale, to serve Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War. "So I felt like this is full circle for me to start getting Stanford involved in this area," she said.

For their final project, students presented their concepts to a group of Stanford faculty members and representatives from Silicon Valley nonprofits. The team with the winning project — a plan to address child mental health issues in refugee camps by empowering mothers — hopes to secure funding to begin implementing it.

"I think this is the future of education — global education" Barry said. "Partnerships and using new technology to create empathy and human-centered design projects."

As part of the class, students could also develop their own podcasts about a refugee health crisis topic. One of those podcasts, "What I’m Grateful For," was especially notable: In it, first-year Stanford medical student Besher Ashouri recounts his personal experience of leaving his hometown of Aleppo, Syria, to come as a refugee to the United States, and of being inspired to pursue medicine by his father, a doctor in Syria known as the "King of Tonsils."

Photo by Meredith Miller Vostrejs

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