Global Health Awareness Week Gala Dinner

After a hectic finals week, Liane and I biz-caj’ed it up and headed out to the Global Health Awareness Week (affectionately, GHAW) Gala Dinner. The dinner was just one part of a weeklong series of speakers, documentary screenings, and lunchtime talks put on by UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Global Health Review, UCLA Program in Global Health, the UCLA AIDS Institute, and the David Geffen School of Medicine.The event began with some mingling downstairs at Ronald Reagan hospital–mostly, Liane and I tried to look sophisticated and cool amidst lots of distinguished suits and med/public health students (mission accomplished). Then, we spotted Chancellor Block and got super excited and started tweeting, fb updating, etc. We were then herded into an auditorium, where the dean of the medical school gave a quick introduction and pumped up all of our egos (apparently, UCLA was just ranked 9th in the world by the London Journal of Higher Education). Chancellor Block then introduced the keynote speaker who also happened to be a UC Regent (and husband of Senator Diane Feinstein??!)–Richard Blum.

Blum is a hotshot investment banker and founder of the American Himalayan Foundation and the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He started off his talk by describing what first got him interested in global health. An avid rock climber in his youth, he took a trip to Nepal, where he befriended many local sherpas and witnessed firsthand the kind of crippling poverty that plagues developing countries. With the extra money from his trip, he decided to launch the American Himalayan Foundation. Today, they have placed fifteen thousand kids in school, built pipelines to deliver clean water, built a hospital and rehab center for kids with disabilities, and are working to stop girl trafficking. Blum stressed the importance of not being  overwhelmed by the plethora of problems in the world, most of which will persist past our lifetimes. Instead, he encouraged us to make small differences in the lives of individual people. Blum recounted how he made a promise to a sherpa he stayed with in Nepal (whom he considers his oldest friend) that he would pay for his five children’s schooling. All five kids completed high school and three went on to college in the United States. One of them came back to open the largest dental clinic in Nepal and another is going to be a doctor. Thinking in terms of helping individuals one at a time can humanize the daunting task of trying to save the world and create a “pay it forward” effect. Blum also emphasized how education can be a tool to prevent youth from falling prey to dangerous extremist groups and to prevent girls from being trafficked–and it only takes $150 a year to keep a child in school. He also started a Global Poverty and Practice minor at Berkeley which he expects to be rolled out to all other UC campuses by next year. The minor’s popularity has grown exponentially at Cal, and Blum described how harnessing what he calls the millennial’s (our generation) passion for global engagement inspires him everyday. Blum ended his speech encouraging us to think on a personal level and to simply “pick a spot. Make a difference.”

Next, we divided ourselves into small dinner groups for roundtable discussions. Liane and I sat with a pediatrician who had worked with Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors Without Borders), a neurologist who was a part of Physicians for Human Rights, an ER doc, and a UCLA-PRIME med student (and former UCLA IDS major) who was working on starting a refugee clinic. We had an interesting discussion about how global health work is experiencing a paradigm shift. The pediatrician described how she felt like a band-aid on a solution when she worked for MSF. While they provide life-saving short term aid, MSF doesn’t have a sustainable structure to ensure the health of communities after they leave. She and the neurologist both agreed that global health work is moving away from the post-colonialist “I’m swooping in to rescue you” mentality to training and empowering community health workers with our knowledge so they can create long-term change at home. We also talked about our mixed feelings about Kony2012, which both raised awareness but reminded us that true global health advocacy is more complex than simply sharing something on Facebook. The pediatrician likened it to how she appreciates George Clooney for shedding light on issues Southern Sudan, where she has worked, but a group of passionate and well-informed people on the ground is still essential to effecting change. Striking a balance between awareness and action is key. Liane and I jumped in and gave our GlobeMed plugs and everyone was very impressed with the work we do. The ER doc emphasized how she could personally identify the importance of working with youth. Growing up in Jamaica, she said she could remember aid workers coming in to teach them about important health issues and how that made a huge difference in her life. She started a program at UCLA where they bus inner city kids in to Reagan and try to inspire them to pursue medicine, emphasizing how important it is to remember the need in our own communities. Towards the end of the dinner, it came out that the neurologist knew the Evans (from GlobeMed’s partner search in Southeast Asia) because of his work in Burma. This coincidence made me realize that global health work is not just about community and solidarity with our partner organizations, but also about connecting with like-minded individuals locally. How fitting that the theme of the gala was “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally.”

The event gave Liane and me a glimpse of how we envision the GlobeMed network to grow as we become professionals. Networking with people ten and twenty years older than us who have already made so many impressive accomplishments in global health led me to reflect on my own goals after GlobeMed and graduation. As a future healthcare professional, it is so comforting to know that I will be plugged in with a group of people just as passionate, creative, and ambitious as the friends that I’ve made in GlobeMed. I can’t wait!

-Catherine Ni
Director of Communications ’11-’12

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