Remote partnership improves care, cultural understanding amid pandemic

Written by  Karen Templeton

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In a global remote internship, Human Rights with Clinica Verde in Nicaragua (HRT 485), UAB students interact with clinical staff, learn about the services offered and work on a community-driven project to support development of its services.
UAB junior April Alvarez chose to study criminal justice in hopes of learning ways she could be a part of improving outcomes and protecting the rights of under-served populations.

“I want to focus my work on supporting the interests of minority groups,” said Alvarez, a Birmingham native. “I found more and more through my studies that learning about criminal justice is tied to understanding human rights.”

Her interests led her to enroll in a global remote internship, Human Rights with Clinica Verde in Boaca, Nicaragua (HRT 485), in which students interact with clinical staff, learn about the services and health education offered and work on a community-driven project to support development of its services.

Specifically, interns meet virtually with clinic staff who provide mental health interventions for Nicaraguan adolescents to assess their needs and then research and identify resources to help support those interventions. Students do not provide direct mental health services.

“UAB students get to hear more about the challenges Clinica Verde’s clients face and then hone their research skills while expanding the clinic’s offerings,” said Ashley Neyer, director of UAB’s Education Abroad. “This is an incredible opportunity to learn about Nicaraguan culture, especially as it pertains to adolescents and women.” 

Study abroad from home

With international travel on pause, the internship provides a cultural experience from the UAB campus.

“The internship is arranged in a way that enables cross-cultural exchange and enhances global awareness,” Neyer said. “Students are learning a lot about mental health similarities and differences between the United States and Nicaragua.” 

Alvarez, fluent in Spanish, has translated for clinic staff and her fellow students when needed and has gained a deeper understanding of human rights issues in Nicaragua.

“We are learning about the levels of violence teens are experiencing and what is beneficial to their healing process,” Alvarez said. “This experience is showing me how I can be a part of change not just here in the U.S. but abroad and how resource-sharing can develop better outcomes for adolescents in Nicaragua.” 

The partnership was established by Majd Zayzafoon, M.D., Ph.D. assistant provost for International Education and associate dean for International Medical Education, who has been working with Clinica Verde to provide community-based health care and health education for women and their families in rural Nicaragua. The internship is led by Tina Kempin Reuter, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Institute of Human Rights, and Stacy Moak, Ph.D., professor of political science in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences. They provide guidance in cultural competencies and interactions with clinical staff.

“In addition to the resource support for the adolescent counseling, we talk about women’s rights and women’s health issues in Nicaragua,” Moak said. “Our goal is to work collaboratively with our students and clinic staff to develop programs and educational initiatives and gain some hands-on experiences with human-rights advocacy.”

Collaboration has been central to the relationship.

"This program has been so rewarding for the team at Clinica Verde," said its founder Susan Dix Lyons. "The commitment and curiosity of the students has led to a rich and meaningful experience that will continue to strengthen mental health services for youth in Nicaragua. We're so grateful for the collaboration."

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A virtual internship enables students to be part of change here and abroad and help develop better outcomes for women and children in Clinica Verde in Nicaragua.

Clinica Verde also provides prenatal nutrition education classes to educate expecting mothers on the benefits of a healthy diet. Interns have collaborated with the prenatal health class to select a recommended vegetable and share recipes and cooking techniques that also teach students ways dishes are prepared in Nicaragua.

“The clinic director, Rafael, has gathered local Nicaraguan coffee and chocolate, along with a cultural souvenir for the students, and we’ve been intentional in demonstrating ways that that we can support the local community rather than purchasing from a big box carriers,” Neyer said. “It has been a fun way to get immersed in a culture without being able to be in the country physically.”

Beyond the barriers

A goal of the internship is to provide an understanding of the ways in which coursework ties to professional careers, and Alvarez can see the connection clearly: “In improving human rights, we need to better see the barriers different cultures face. In my future career in criminal justice, I want to be a part of removing those barriers.”

With international travel canceled due to the pandemic, UAB’s Global Engagement team will continue to identify virtual opportunities to provide cultural experiences for students.

“While we all want our education abroad travel opportunities to resume, we are grateful to the UAB faculty who think outside of the box to make sure our students stay engaged,” Zayzafoon said. “UAB faculty have built incredible international partnerships, and we are fortunate we can build on those partnerships even during the pandemic and provide a whole new way of communicating and learning for our students.”

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Karen Templeton, director of communications for the Office of the Provost, wrote this for UAB Reporter.