Off the Beaten Path: Students Reflect on Novel Global Health Co-Majors

Published February 07, 2019 under Education News

Written by Susan Gallagher

Co-Major Infographic

Selecting a major at Duke from the 50+ options across dozens of fields is challenging enough, but global health majors are faced with another tough decision: what to choose as their co-major.

Global health is the only Duke major that requires a co-major—not to be confused with a second major. “We advise our students to be thoughtful about how they can intentionally integrate their majors in meaningful ways, versus viewing them as two separate majors,” said Laura Bey, assistant director for curricular and student affairs at the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI).

This approach underscores DGHI’s commitment to addressing global health issues from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives. 

We advise our students to be thoughtful about how they can intentionally integrate their majors in meaningful ways.

Laura Bey, assistant director for curricular and student affairs

“We believe that improving health and health care for all people worldwide requires interdisciplinary collaboration on innovative approaches, and this philosophy is at the heart of our global health major,” said Mary Story, associate director for academic programs at DGHI. “A multidisciplinary approach encourages students to think across and beyond traditional academic boundaries to address complex health issues.” 

DGHI established its global health major—the first liberal arts global health bachelor’s degree in the United States—in 2013. Since then, students have paired the global health major with 33 different majors, lending a flexibility to the program that students find appealing. “When you consider the breadth of co-major options, the global health major can have hundreds of different configurations of courses,” said Dennis Clements, director of undergraduate studies at DGHI. 

Currently, 57 percent of students choose social sciences co-majors, 34 percent select co-majors from the natural sciences and nine percent co-major in a humanities-based field. Six majors comprise about 70 percent of all co-major pairings, with public policy, biology and psychology topping the list.

We recently connected with a few students among the remaining 30 percent—those who have taken the road less traveled, selecting unexpected co-majors—to learn about their motivations for choosing their co-major and how they’re integrating it with global health. Here’s what they told us.

Hemal Patel ’19 



Why did you choose economics as your co-major?

In global health, there’s a big focus on disparities, and in economics, we use models to explain the world. Through my courses, I started to see ways these models could be used to understand some of these disparities. I like the idea of pairing global health—a relatively new field—with economics, an established social science that offers a lot of methods to conduct social research and ways to analyze problems.

How do you hope to integrate economics and global health in your work after graduating?

When I graduate, I want to work in diabetes. I’ve applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to go to India to study how globalization, economics and cultural factors have impacted India’s diabetes epidemic. Economists can do this type of work, but they tend to go in more as researchers as opposed to individuals or as people. And studying global health really gives you the background to understand some of these human connections that you don’t see in some of the other more established social sciences, like economics. It brings humanity and helps us see health as a basic human right, as opposed to a service.


Hemal collecting demographic information
from children in a school in French Harbor, Roatán.

Holly Quivera ’19



What intersections do you see between English and global health?

Both global health and English are interdisciplinary fields that offer great scopes and a multitude of perspectives. I approach English as a way of gaining insight into the past, present and future through selected works, canons and the changes literature has undergone and will continue to undergo. Global health is much the same way. The amount of critical thinking and reflection that both of these majors offer has definitely been insightful to me. Also, to me, storytelling and health experiences go hand in hand, and that is something that has been confirmed time and time again in these majors. 

Can you give an example of how you’ve integrated your co-majors?

I care deeply about the social aspects of human life and experiences. As a sophomore, I did independent research on illness narratives, as a junior I engaged in research on the vernacular aspects of Rondavels in South Africa, and most recently, I co-taught sexual reproductive health and composition at WISER International, an NGO in Kenya, through the DukeEngage program. Each of these experiences called for storytelling, empathy, critical thinking and reflection—some of the skills I have honed while co-majoring in English and global health. 


Holly in Nairobi.

Saumya Sao ’20

Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies


Can you give an example of how you’ve integrated your gender, sexuality and feminist studies major with your global health major?

For my final project in the Global Health Ethics class, I read more deeply into issues related to HIV serodiscordant couples (one person is HIV-positive and one is HIV-negative), particularly ethical issues related to HIV status disclosure at both the individual and public health levels. My gender, sexuality & feminist studies coursework enabled me to consider the gendered power dynamics that often exist among discordant couples, and how they may affect a vulnerable partner’s ability to access treatment, disclose their status or even maintain their safety.

In what ways do you think the co-major model enhances your global health education at Duke?

I think having gender, sexuality and feminist studies as my co-major is really helping me develop a comprehensive understanding of the social determinants of health. Institutionalized racism and sexism enacted by the state have a profound impact on factors that manifest as barriers to healthcare and are deeply engrained in a lot of the inequities discussed in global health classes. The combination of classes I’ve taken in both majors has really pushed me to look at sexual, reproductive and maternal health from a multilayered perspective, showing me how to consider the impacts of gender and sexuality through a variety of lenses, from clinical cases studies, to gender frameworks, to queer and feminist theory.


Saumya (left) and research teammate Molly Paley after the
2018 International Conference on Family Planning in Rwanda.

Hazel Horvath ’20

Environmental Science and Policy 


Why did you choose environmental science and policy as your co-major?

I believe that environmental degradation and pollution needs to be seen as a human health issue, so I thought the pairing of these two majors would allow me to explore this intersection of issues. I know I want to go into the environmental field, so the environmental science and policy major gives me the more specific knowledge about issues I want to tackle later in my career, while global health gives me more skills to evaluate these issues and broadens my view of different entry points. The global health major also prepares students to enter the international development world, which is where I could see my career heading in the future. 

Can you give an example of how you’ve integrated your co-majors?

Last semester, I studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland, and completed an internship at R20–Regions of Climate Action (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s foundation). I worked on establishing the fund’s portfolio of projects in China. My tasks revolved around the Sustainable Development Goals and different health metrics, and I was able to attend conferences at the UN Palace de Nations. My global health coursework prepared me for most of the tasks I was given, but my environmental science experience gave me context for the impact and importance of the projects.


A colleague's desk at OPAL Environmental Justice, an environmental nonprofit
in Portland, Oregon, where Hazel completed field research in the summer of 2018.

Jessica Marlow ’20

Asia and Middle East Studies


Why did you choose Asia and Middle East studies as your co-major?

On a personal note, as a half-Chinese, half-white American, I was interested in deepening my understanding of my own cultural heritage. The Asia and Middle East studies (AMES) major has allowed me to study Chinese language and culture, as well as take a variety of courses related to Asia that examine culture from different points in history. I realized my passion for global health in the beginning of sophomore year, and it was a natural pairing. Understanding the importance of cultural competence in doing global health work, majoring in both AMES and global health allows me to bridge the social sciences and humanities and remember that global health is all about real people and real communities with a past, present and future.

Have you been surprised by ways that the two fields have intersected? 

One of the most surprising ways that AMES and global health have intersected for me was in a global health class I took while studying abroad in Copenhagen this past semester. The class was focused on human trafficking, and we talked a lot about the role of culture in trafficking. For example, in Thailand, there is a cultural tradition in which the youngest daughter is responsible for providing for the parents when they retire, leading to many young girls being trafficked into the sex or entertainment industry. When considering issues like this that influence health outcomes but are deeply connected to cultural values, my studies in both AMES and global health have been invaluable.


Jessica outside an Islamic temple in Xi’an, China,
taken when she was studying abroad in China.

Learn more about the global health major at DGHI.