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Student-led alliance allows students to learn from each other

A new group at the University of Toronto is striving to bring together grad students whose research is based on, or around global health.

BY TARA SIEBARTH | NOV 07 2011

A few years ago, Peter Singer, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, noticed a pattern in some of his interdisciplinary students. Several of them were focusing their thesis on global health issues, but none of them knew each other or spoke. He saw this as a missed opportunity for the students to share their ideas and learn from one another, and decided to take action.

“One thing I’ve learned after 25 years of being a university professor is to identify the problem, provide a little encouragement and support [to the students] and then get out of the way,” says Dr. Singer, also director of the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health at the University Health Network and U of T. So in 2009, Dr. Singer approached two of his students and gently nudged them to do something about this lack of communication.

The two students approached Judy Kopelow, director for strategic initiatives at the Global Health Division, Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the U of T, who helped them form a research group, allowing students to come together at one event. Since then, with Ms. Kopelow’s mentorship, this initiative has evolved into the Graduate Student Alliance for Global Health (GSAGH). It now has a 14-person executive which organizes two symposiums, several career workshops and an undergraduate seminar series every year. Participation has been increasing and becoming more interdisciplinary with every event.

“You learn a lot more from your fellow students than you do from your professors. The whole idea here is peer-to-peer learning. There is so much that graduate students can teach each other, especially across disciplines, so this alliance is an attempt to capture that value that sadly is all too often left on the table,” says Dr. Singer.

Ms. Kopelow explains that all of the events are organized by the graduate students. She is there to help as a “very enthusiastic advisor.”

“I help bring the students together. Even though there are thousands of graduate students, it’s still challenging to get them to participate or even identify who they are. I see my role as moving the alliance along but also advising and supporting its growth,” she says.

The two main events that the alliance organizes are the symposiums. These events allow students to share their ideas, present their research and network with one another.

Each symposium has a theme, like knowledge translation or the G8/G20, and features guest speakers, as well as presentations from students across a variety of disciplines. Beth Rachlis, the president and chair of the alliance’s executive says the symposiums are kept informal on purpose, so that students feel comfortable. “It’s a place for students to get feedback on their ideas, which is a lot better than a formal conference setting,” she says. Ms. Rachlis is a PhD student in the division of epidemiology in the collaborative doctoral program in global health at the University of Toronto.

She explains that the alliance has also spearheaded several career workshops offered throughout the year to global health students. “We have had sessions on publishing, how to communicate your research, community engagement, as well as social advocacy.”

The alliance also hosts an undergraduate seminar series called Make World Change. These sessions provide opportunity for undergraduate students to discuss and debate urgent global challenges: the environment, human rights, housing, health, peace and conflict. Members of the alliance are the ones who run the sessions.

“It is a great opportunity for those of us [graduate students] to get some teaching experience. We are able to share the lessons we’ve learned, the obstacles we’ve overcome and also all the good things that have happened along the way,” says Chris Klinger, a PhD student in health policy management and evaluation, who was co-chair of the alliance with Ms. Rachlis. This seven-week series has been so successful that it has led to the creation of the undergraduate student alliance for global health.

Both Ms. Rachlis and Mr. Klinger hope that the alliance acts as a case study for other faculties and even other institutions to try the same thing. A presentation in this regard was also made at the 2011 Global Health Conference in Montreal. But they warn that it is always good to have some form of faculty support.

“Even though this is a student initiative, we have support from someone like Judy and I think that’s really important, especially when we’re starting out. Even if there are only one or two students who are interested in taking the initiative, it’s totally feasible. You just need to build the momentum and reach out to other departments. Starting off with a fun event is a great way to bring in people who are interested,” Ms. Rachlis says.

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