Authors: Sivakami Prasanna, Sanaa Munjal, Dnyaneshwar Surwase
As Banyan Impact Fellows, we are always presented with opportunities to collaborate across different learning communities. The active alumni network is an important platform to facilitate this. In this fellowship cohort, three of us working in the thematic area of Public Health got an opportunity to collaborate with students from Boston College. Facilitated by Tara Casebolt, an alumna of the fellowship and presently Assistant Professor at Boston College, we volunteered as community partners for her class on Public Health, Practice and Evaluation. The objective of the collaboration was to help and support the students in understanding the public health system by connecting them to partners in the field to get hands-on experience.
Between January to May 2023, we collaborated with the students who supported us in our work at our respective host organizations. Through the partnership, we were able to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and ideas, which allowed the students to develop a contextual understanding of the issues and to contribute towards positive change. In this article, we share our learnings from this collaboration with the larger AIF community. This partnership is a testament to how the fellowship never ends, it continues to be a platform for socially conscious changemakers to collaborate.
Supporting Mind-at-Ease, Sanaa Munjal, Tech Mahindra Foundation
We, at Tech Mahindra Foundation, have been working to gather information on the need, access, and perception of mental health and well-being and focusing our greater efforts towards this. Our initiative Mind@Ease is the first step in that direction. As part of my fellowship, I set out to research this facet within the communities I was closely working with.
The group of 4 students from Boston College that I collaborated with extensively supported me by conducting secondary research on the climate of mental health and well-being in India, particularly among those with inadequate access to mental health-related resources like in lower-income communities. The students utilized the learnings from their classes to work on a mock questionnaire that can support the survey or interviews undertaken in the communities. It is important to note that since mental health is a sensitive issue, the structuring of the questions needed to be in such a manner that they do not hurt the sentiments of the respondents and make it easier for them to answer. The students had to tread lightly, which they successfully did, and they managed to come up with a stellar questionnaire.
The deliverables also included their inputs and feedback on the Mind@Ease website of my host organization which was being revamped during the period of the partnership. Furthermore, the students researched the existing best practices within communities and other successful mental health awareness-related interventions. Their research focused primarily on the situation in India, South Asia, and other developing nations. This helped them apply their skills to actionable outcomes and also supported my host organization’s efforts to understand and gain more insights into mental health within vulnerable communities.
The partnership turned out to be a unique opportunity for me to understand how to collaborate with external partners while engaging in cross-cultural learning. It was interesting to see how the students gained more interest in the ongoing work in my project and supported me with smaller areas of work as well that helped them enhance their understanding of on-field realities and also supported me in looking at my project from a different lens. It was interesting to hear their take on the overall work being done, keeping in mind the different contextual understandings and differences in perspectives, ideas, and situations.
The feedback from the students demonstrates the value of such collaborations between students and development practitioners:
“Working with Mind@Ease was an excellent opportunity which allowed me to learn more about the mental health climate in India and the variety of projects implemented by Mind@Ease to promote mental health across communities. It was interesting to put the concepts I have learned about as a Public Health student to practice through my research. I hope to take the skills I have learned from this experience to my future academic and professional endeavors!”
- Madelyn Schwartz (Student at Boston College)
“Working with Tech Mahindra was easily a highlight of my semester. To work with a company from a different country and use Public Health techniques to increase outreach to those in different communities was incredible. The community partner engagement project inspired and encouraged me to continue work in the Public Health field.”
- Mariam Abdelhalim (Student at Boston College)
Improving and strengthening the public health system in Kalahandi, Dnyaneshwar S, Seba Jagath
We started the journey with meetings, introductions, and sharing our ideas to get to know each other better. Prof. Tara gave us the space to finalize it according to our project deliverables. Since they were undergraduate students and had other courses, assignments, and exams, I did not want them to work under pressure and invest too much time in multiple assignments for this partnership with us. Rather, I was trying to be mindful when assigning them final deliverables. We gave the students open space to be as creative as they could and submit a deliverable that would be helpful for the community and the partner organization.
After discussion, we came up with two deliverables that will make sure that they get the idea of the public health system, understand the community partner’s work at the grassroots level, the socio-economic and cultural context of the region, and submit the deliverable that will help the community partner strengthen the public health system. I shared the project briefs, various government documents on public health, policies, programme handbooks, websites, and research papers in the context of the public health system in Kalahandi, Odisha.
The students who worked with me conducted secondary research on the best practices of public-private partnerships in public health systems in developing countries. They covered three distinct thematic areas: newborn, maternal, and adolescent health. The students did a literature review, secondary research, and analysis and found some best practices in public-private partnerships in the public health sector from developing countries. The best practices they outlined have proven effective in a variety of geographical regions, but as with any intervention, the social and cultural context of the target population should be carefully considered before implementation, along with rigorous monitoring and evaluation.
My host organization, Seba Jagat, is implementing two public health programmes in Odisha under a public-private partnership with the National Health Mission of Odisha. The research conducted by the students will help the organization implement these best practices to strengthen the health system in tribal areas of Odisha. Their contribution is helpful and will be a valuable addition. It was a rewarding experience to work with them.
Enthusiasm and curiosity made this small journey interesting. Sharing insights, grassroots stories, and experiences about the public health system in Kalahandi helped them understand the context. It also allowed me to critically revisit and revise my work. It was a delightful, enriching, and enjoyable experience to meet, discuss, and learn from this collaboration.
Feedback from a student- Miguel Cid-Rosas :
“I truly enjoyed working with my group members, our partner organization Seba Jagat, our assigned fellow Dnyaneshwar Surwase, and Dr Tara Casebolt on a project that brought all of us together with the sole purpose of helping a community. Having the opportunity to work with individuals who are passionate about solving health disparities both domestically and abroad was truly rewarding. I liked how we divided our project into three different sections, allowing us to focus on researching our assigned demographic. Researching best practices on maternal health allowed me to become knowledgeable in this specific area and provided me with tools to make recommendations when this specific topic is brought up. Another important aspect of this project was differentiating between a good and effective practice versus an ineffective practice. Yes, the partnership was very useful to help me apply what I learned in class to what goes on in the real world. I feel better prepared for future positions and endeavors.”
Understanding the importance of community-focused approaches in Maternal and Newborn Health outcomes, Sivakami, India Health Action Trust
When the opportunity to collaborate with the students at Boston College came up, I was most excited to have access to a learning community. As I was just out of college, I sorely missed the enthusiasm and originality of student groups. Dr Tara assigned me as a community partner for four students.
Based out of Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh, Project MANCH’s interventions are focused on improving maternal and newborn child healthcare outcomes in the region. We work with rural communities, predominantly those belonging to tribal communities. As communities are at the center of our work, we are always looking to learn from development spaces how to design better interventions. Both deliverables of my fellowship project: a qualitative study and completion of a pilot intervention sought to improve community engagement to promote better MANCH outcomes.
As a community partner, I wanted to support the students to expand their understanding of Public Health practices on the ground. When you work to improve the health of communities, it is vital to understand the influence of social determinants. Health inequities are a result of multiple hierarchical social structures. Structural factors (economic condition, caste, gender, geography, infrastructural aspects), social and psychosocial factors (perception of care, cultural factors, individual behaviors) and health system factors (FLW’s perception of their work and approaches, skill set, quality of care at the facility) all play a role. As a public health student and practitioner, realizing the influence of this is important to promote health interventions that are sustainable and community-driven.
To accomplish this learning objective, the students conducted secondary research on community interventions for improving Maternal and Newborn child healthcare outcomes. They identified the best practices through a holistic review of case studies from across the globe. Their case studies ranged from Asia to Africa and outlined the principles that ensured maximum efficacy and sustainability. Our discussions, ideation and constant reflexivity were what drove the project forwards. I also facilitated a session with Dr Thirumalai Narayanan, state lead of Madhya Pradesh, India Health Action Trust. This discussion took them through various aspects of public health such as the role of community workers, building trust in health systems, health equity frameworks and skill sets for a successful career in public health.
As Lauren Vanderslice shared
“ I really liked our external session with Dr. Narayanan, because it really helped contextualize what we were researching, and even gave me some ideas on types of case studies to investigate when looking for sources for the literature review. We worked to understand concepts of equity, community involvement, funding, program implementation, and the importance of trial and error in class. This partnership allowed me to see those concepts in action, as well as force me to connect those concepts to research by looking for other programs using those concepts in their programming”
The experience of having a curious and enthusiastic learning community was wonderful. It allowed me to share my work with a larger audience. Listening to the ideas and perspectives of the students always energized me to bring my best self to the research work that I was doing. Their contribution to Project MANCH’s work was valuable.
This collaboration was a learning experience for all of us. It gave us an opportunity to share our journey and reflect on our projects. Considering how this has been facilitated by Tara Casebolt who has been an alum of the AIF fellowship herself made the whole partnership even more fulfilling. Our collaboration exemplified how universities and communities can work together to facilitate meaningful work in the development sector