Reflections on Community Building in the Master of Science in Global Health

September 21, 2015
Spruce Pine Lodge
Building community during orientation at Spruce Pine Lodge in Bahama, North Carolina

By Melissa Watt, Associate Director of the MSc-GH Program

It's the first month of classes at Duke, and all around me, I watch our students building and sustaining a sense of community. 

Before classes started, the 34 students in our newest cohort of Master of Science in Global Health (MSc-GH) students spent a day doing team building exercises at Spruce Pine Lodge—because there's nothing to build community like working together to get a rubber fish across a line!

The same evening, they gathered at the home of Chris Woods, MSc-GH program director, to build community across the cohorts and with DGHI faculty. I watch students gathering for deep discussions in Grace’s Café in the basement of Trent Hall, forming writing groups to support each other through the thesis writing process, and making plans for potluck dinners and outings around Durham. It's a wonderful process to watch unfold!

In observing this community building process, I'm struck by how this not only brings joy and support to people, but also by how it's a skill and an asset in itself. Again and again, I'm reminded of the importance of building community as a global health researcher. For me, that means spending time with people, listening, tuning in to the personal and finding ways to celebrate (and sometimes mourn) together. 

I am often reminded of a lesson I learned when I started working in Tanzania as a graduate student. I was frustrated that we weren’t making enough progress on the project I was assigned and turned to my mentor at the timea seasoned global health researcherfor advice. She told me that the foundation of international research is relationships, and that I should take some time to strengthen that foundationby having tea, getting to know people’s families, sharing of myself. I shifted my focus, and everything got better and easier. 

That experience has stuck with me, and it has helped me to slow down and prioritize the relationship building. Now, when I visit Tanzania to monitor my project on obstetric fistula, I stay at my study coordinator’s home. I play Uno with her children in the evening and we drink our chai together in the morning. We connect as people, and it not only makes our work more enjoyable, but also more productive. As I've talked to students returning from their fieldwork, they've similarly remarked on how the relationships and sense of community they built were not only valuable to them, but also served as the foundation for their success.

And then there is the community built at DGHI, which will serve as an incredible asset to our students as they go forward in their lives and careers. From my own experience from graduate school, I have seen how my mentors from graduate school have become my peers, my peers have become my colleagues, and all of these individuals make up an important web of professional and social support that is invaluable in my life and career. 

I'm confident that when they graduate, our students will find that the community they created here at DGHI will provide a similarly invaluable network. As a program, we would like to do everything we can to make that even stronger. We work hard in the first year to place students as paid research assistants (RAs) with faculty mentors, which often involves working on teams with other students from across the educational continuum. I continue to engage with MSc-GH students who have worked with me as RAspublishing together, supporting their career and academic steps and socializing when we have the chance. 

Next month, I will launch the second annual series of “Fireside Chats,” where second-year students sign up for evenings of roasting marshmallows with two faculty members around my backyard firepit. It's a great experience for both students and facultyswapping experiences, pathways and advice, and building a shared sense of community.

As a faculty member at DGHI, I am grateful to be part of this strong community of scholars, and to learn from and be inspired by our smart and passionate graduate students. As associate director of the MSc-GH program, I am privileged to be part of helping this community to emerge and develop.