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Change the World

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One major combines learning, research and service to develop real world solutions now.

One undergraduate travels to Jamaica to research whether the health clinic is open when the population needs it most. Another works with a local hospice. A third studies the effect of literacy on diabetics’ renal function.

Vanderbilt has always strived to educate its students so they will go forth and contribute as leaders after they graduate. But why wait?

From this philosophy, a new College of Arts and Science major, medicine, health and society (MHS), was born. Using an interdisciplinary and transinstitutional framework, MHS encourages students to examine the local, national and international forces that affect medicine, health and society. Courses and seminars cover topics including the correlation of health care and diseases, the doctor/patient relationship, economic and legal barriers to quality care, cultural and global concerns, the history of medicine, and gaps in the infrastructure of public health systems. Students then have an opportunity to participate in internships to confront problems in real-time settings, such as hospitals, hospices, public health clinics, homeless shelters and international relief agencies. 

Passion, Service and Research Combined

“I think a lot of our students come to our program because they want to change the world,” says Arleen Tuchman, professor of history and director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society. “They’re learning how to reflect on this impulse or this passion that they have, and they’re being encouraged to think about how to combine service and research.”

Vanderbilt students are flocking to participate in this innovative intersection of humanities, social sciences and medicine. Now tagged as the hottest new major on campus, it has grown from 29 declared majors in the fall of 2006 to 175 majors today–with no plateau in sight. “There’s a buzz on campus,” Tuchman says. And students and faculty alike share the excitement.

These are students who want their shot at some sort of transformative experience,” says Greg Barz, associate professor of anthropology, associate professor of musicology, and associate professor of music and religion. “I see them as intellectual risk-takers. I see them taking leaps off cliffs in terms of what they’re willing to think about, and what boxes they’re willing to think outside of. Plus, the courses are cool.”

Barz, for example, teaches a course about East African medicine and society, and works with Vanderbilt’s Kampala Project, which includes a four-week, on-the-ground, service-learning component in Uganda. Students chosen for the course attend a spring semester class introducing the health issues of East Africa, with a particular focus on HIV/AIDS. They then travel with Barz for a May session internship in Kampala, where each works in a clinic, school, orphanage, hospital or outreach

The Kampala Project is now co-sponsored by The Commons (see related story on page 20), with the intent of providing international opportunities for first-year students who will return to the university and share their experiences with peers and teachers.

“We wanted them young, so they would come back and change Vanderbilt,” Barz explains. “From their first steps on campus, these kids are being given an opportunity to become global citizens.” 

Diverse Disciplines Encourage Diversity of Thought

Another hallmark of the major is the way it fosters cross-campus exchange. Instructors assemble from many departments in the College of Arts and Science and from other Vanderbilt schools, as well as the medical center.  

This interdisciplinary diversity broaches a wide range of thought-provoking topics. For instance, Holly Tucker, associate professor of French and associate director of MHS, teaches a course on medicine and literature; David Boyd, who holds a doctorate in medieval studies and has worked in hospital administration, has created a course on death and dying; and physician Frank Boehm leads a class in controversies in modern medicine. School of Nursing Associate Professor and Vanderbilt Distinguished Alumna Carol Etherington instructs students about risks and responsibilities in caring for vulnerable populations.

“I see them taking leaps off cliffs in terms of what they’re willing to think about, and what boxes they’re willing to think outside of.”

— Greg Barz

Tuchman has high praise for her faculty, pointing out just some of what each brings to their classes. “What I appreciate about Carol Etherington is her whole commitment to teaching students, who want to save the world, to examine their motivations. She wants them to begin thinking responsibly about the kinds of interventions that they are either supporting or enacting. And she wants them to make sure that, in the end, their work is actually benefiting the people they’re trying to help.”

In this same vein, Barbara Clinton, who directs Vanderbilt’s Center for Health Services, will guide a class that seeks insight from community leaders into the most pressing issues facing their constituencies. Tuchman says the point is “that those of us who are in academic settings and have resources and research tools should be working with community leaders to help them solve the problems they consider most urgent.”

Unique Perspectives for Premed

Many MHS majors continue on to graduate programs in nursing, public health, dentistry, law, hospital administration and medicine. In fact, the major offers a unique background for the premed undergraduate. 

“So many people [applying to medical school] are biology majors without much experience in the societal aspects of medicine,” explains Daniel Israel, a senior MHS major who will attend medical school in fall 2008. “Now it seems nonscience majors are getting accepted into medical school at a higher rate than pure basic science majors. I think a lot of that is the changing perspective of medical schools, realizing that knowing your p’s and q’s of science isn’t enough to make you a true physician. You really need to know how health affects people from a societal perspective.” 

Senior Sarah Deery, who also will attend medical school next year, attributes the critical thinking required from her MHS classes to helping her sail through medical school interviews. “I was asked, ‘What do you think is the biggest problem facing American medicine today?’ and I could have talked about that for hours!” she says with a laugh.

Disha Kumar, BA’07, now in her first year at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, believes that by double-majoring in MHS and chemistry, she was well prepared for challenges in her chosen career. “I was able to do everything I wanted to do in college,” she says. “I took a history of medicine class. Who would have thought that a class like that even existed for undergraduates? I loved the interdisciplinary nature of MHS. For me, it was the best part of college.”

Photos by Ravi Patel and Carolyn Audet.

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