Panel of Scholars and Students Discuss Public Health Issues in Mexico

Kelsey Soderberg

Last Thursday, Colgate’s Global Health Initiative (GHI) brought two prominent Mexican public health figures to campus for a presentation about intercultural relations and service in the medical field. Both scholars, a pro-bono surgeon and Chair of the University of Chihuahua Medical School’s Department of Reconstructive Surgery Dr. Raul Favela, and a world-renowned scholar in bilingual education at New Mexico State University Dr. Herman Garcia, addressed students looking to enter the public health or medicine fields.

The panel also featured seniors Hannah Guzolik  and Caroline Correia who, along with a small group of Colgate students, accompanied Dr. Favela and Dr. Garcia to the border regions of Mexico over this past winter break. Sponsored by GHI, the trip was led by Professor Emeritus at New Mexico State University Everett Egginton ’65, who took the group to the largely indigenous and mountainous Sierra Tarahumara region of Chihuahua. 

On the trip, students were allowed to observe the everyday medical care given to the indigenous population at state-run and nonprofit hospitals. Eggington elaborated on his transformative experience in Chihuahua.

“This trip and panel were just tremendous opportunities to work with my colleagues, Dr. Favela and Dr. Garcia, as we worked together on some of the challenges associated with health care delivery, social justice and the public health disparities that exist between the northern and southern US/Mexico border,” Egginton said.

The panel-style lecture focused primarily on the philosophical viewpoints toward the concept of service. Garcia pointed out that working in medicine is working in service, especially if the work is done in communities that lay outside of mainstream society. When entering communities in need of medical attention, Garcia pointed out the dangerous tendency of health professionals to enable, rather than empower community members.

“Do research with them and involve yourself as part of the community, don’t just sit back and watch,” Garcia said.

Favela’s explanation of his service in Chihuahua focused on the relationship between reason, knowledge and heart.

“Serving others seems like a simple idea, but it is truly a complex connection between the way we think, the way we feel and being aware of the people you serve. How you put service into practice is always a tough moral question,” Favela said.

Addressing the prevalent concerns of intercultural relations in the public health field, both scholars focused on the difficulties doctors face when entering cultures different from their own.

“If you just go and use your mind in order to gain intercultural capacities, you will be lost. You must look through the eyes of your heart in order to understand the values and principles of another culture. You must always start with empathy and study how to learn from them,” Favela said.

The scholars also clarified the long-term commitment required to work with communities that need extensive medical improvements. They explained the dynamic processes associated with public health initiatives in deprived regions, showing how the community and the professionals involved can, and must, change drastically over time. Aiming to paint a more realistic picture of global health initiatives, they explained why 90 percent of nonprofits fail in the border regions of Mexico: service-workers’ expectations to immediately change the communities they enter, rather than change their own beliefs. 

Guzolik spoke to her impressions of Garcia and Favela on the trip.

“Dr. Favela and Dr. Garcia truly understand what it means to put all ego aside for the sake of helping others. I think the panel was a great opportunity for people to understand not only a little more about the trip but also how best to use their talents to help others,” Guzolik said.

While the panel offered philosophical and practical advice for students entering the public health field, it was also a reunion for the members of GHI’s winter break trip to discuss their experience with their leaders. Correia spoke to the high level of interaction she had with the locals.

“During our trip, it was encouraging to see how many types of professions we interacted with,” Correia said. “It was so powerful to see how many opportunities there are to make a difference in people’s lives.”