Pandemic emphasizes value of global health minor for students, alumni

Peggy Marsh
March 10, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the world becomes more globalized and interconnected, health experts are racing to adjust to an environment that is no longer divided up by national borders. For students and alumni of Penn State’s global health minor, tracking the implications of this shift has been a fascinating academic journey, especially as events of the past year have brought the content of their coursework to the forefront of public consciousness.

Housed in the College of Health and Human Development’s Department of Biobehavioral Health, the global health minor turns 10 years old this year. As they live through these historic times, students and alumni have recognized the value of their academic work and embraced the adjustments to their plans as a result of COVID-19 by pivoting to virtual solutions.

According to Dana Naughton, director of the global health minor and assistant teaching professor of biobehavioral health, while society faces tremendous challenges, students are finding unique opportunities to apply their knowledge, connect globally, and gain insights from their personal experience of the pandemic.

“My students and former students keep saying they are so amazed that we are actually living everything we study about in the minor,” Naughton said.

Alex Barna in Tanzania in 2018

Alex Barna participated in fieldwork in the United Republic of Tanzania in 2018 as part of Penn State’s global health minor.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Alex Barna

Since the program began in 2010–11, about 200 students have successfully completed the minor. Open to students in all majors across the University, the program has a competitive admissions process, and once accepted, students enroll in six courses inclusive of a signature five-week fieldwork experience, where they apply their classroom skills to clinical and public health settings in countries such as South Africa, Ecuador, and Tanzania.

This year, students like senior Danielle Straub, who is majoring in nutritional sciences, met this requirement virtually with a range of facilitating organizations.

In the Ghana program, Straub and other students who would have traveled to that country met on Zoom throughout January with a Ghanaian physician. He covered the structure of the country’s health care system, their prevention and community health programs, COVID-19 strategies and mental health issues, all set within the context of regional foods, festivals and other cultural practices that impact health. Other experts instructed on topics such as the ethics of short-term global health exchanges, developing cultural humility, and skills needed to work in a global context.

“Throughout my studies I placed a lot of importance and value on cultural understanding, especially with respect to nutrition,” said Straub, whose goal is to become a registered dietitian. “Dr. Charles Chineme Nwobu is a very busy man, but he spent a lot of time with us and taught us so much. The virtual field work really helped me understand how culture impacts nutrition. Overall, my experience with the minor sparks a connection with the content in my nutrition classes now. I do find a lot of ways to connect these two areas of study.”

Alex Barna knew upon arrival at Penn State in the fall of 2015 as a freshman that he wanted to go to medical school. He chose to major in immunology and infectious disease in the College of Agricultural Sciences, but learned about the global health minor during an admissions visit. His tour guide had just returned from the fieldwork experience in Tanzania. Barna did some research, connected with Naughton, and ended up applying for the program and being accepted. In May of 2018 he found himself doing fieldwork in Tanzania. After earning his degree from Penn State, Alex attended graduate school for his master’s degree in public health and graduated from the program at SUNY Downstate in December. 

“The global health minor really shaped what I plan to do and my professional career,” said Barna, who has been accepted to medical schools and will start that journey in the fall. “When I was interviewing for medical school, so much of what came up was related to the global health minor. Without it, I would not be where I am today.”

While in graduate school, Barna had begun doing research into vaccine hesitancy. When the pandemic hit, he observed this niche area become mainstream.

“In public health the goal is always prevention. With the global pandemic, public health has really had to step up," said Barna. "It has been incredible to realize how my global health and public health training could help people.”

HHD Lunch and Learn

On March 24, Naughton and two global health minor alumni, Awele Ajufo class of 2017 in health policy and administration, and Jackie Fili, class of 2017 in biobehavioral health, will present a virtual “Lunch and Learn” as part of the “HHD on Location: Home Edition” series. Lunch and Learn is a 30-minute program where an HHD community member shares information and expertise from their professional experience. Viewers can participate by submitting question in advance. To register, click here.


  • Danielle Straub

    Danielle Straub, a senior majoring in nutritional sciences, met via Zoom during January 2021 with a Ghanaian physician as part of her participation in Penn State’s global health minor.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Danielle Straub
Last Updated March 10, 2021