Students debate Rwandan health

When Chase Harker sent out his first tweet ever, he had a very specific purpose in mind: Rwanda’s mental health care. After publishing his 74-character question in the Twittersphere, he received an unexpected invitation.

“Come and see in #Rwanda. This because I will need thousand of tweets if I want to explain it to you,” typed Agnes Binagwaho, Rwandan minister of health.

Harker was preparing for the first student debate held in partnership with the George W. Bush Institute, which houses a Global Health initiative led by Dr. Eric Bing, senior fellow and director for global health and SMU professor.

Thursday, students from Dr. Bing’s “Global and Public Health” class stepped up in front of four expert judges in an Institute board room to debate the merits and downfalls of two health care issues related to Rwanda: cardiovascular disease and mental illness.

“Teams acted as consultants going to pitch health care reforms, proposing programs to effect health and the nation’s prosperity,” said Suraj Patel, a global health research assistant at the Bush Institute.

Rwanda, a country that was shattered by genocide in 1994, has made great strides on the health care front, specifically in maternal and child health. Bing created this hypothetical situation as a representation of the real-life crossroad Rwanda faces.

“The debate raised the level of engagement. The students could see that people in the presidential center are grappling with the same issues that we’ve covered in class and they as students may have ideas that can make a difference,” Bing said.

Students had a month to prepare and were split into four teams, debating in a tournament style.

“They had to pull from things discovered in class. The class is made up of students with different backgrounds, business, engineering, so I also asked them to pull from their own perspectives as well,” Bing said. “The most important thing was that they had each other. They could not solve a problem by themselves.”

Senior Prithvi Rudrappa, a member of the winning team, used his business acumen to prepare for the debate, studying economic indicators and bank statistics.

“Dr. Bing doesn’t conform to the usual classroom setting of exams and papers. He develops your public speaking skills and thinking. You learn to defend your position and communicate effectively with other people,” Rudrappa said.

Junior Janice Kim said the experience allowed her classroom learning to be reflected in a practical forum.

“The experience was both intimidating and interesting. This was the first time I had done a debate for a class that was realistic to what we would face in the global health field,” she said.

Harker, a sophomore, saw the debate as an opportunity to see how the real world works, especially when interacting with the various expert judges and debate coaches.

“The entire experience was incredible. Who would have thought that a class assignment could be this awesome and involve these kind of movers and shakers,”
Harker said.

Patel, Bing, current SMU graduate student Jordan Wondrack, and Dr. Akshai Lakhanpal were on hand throughout the preparation to advise students on Rwandan infrastructure, mental health, debate strategy and cardiovascular disease.

Two Bush Institute directors, Col. Miguel Howe, director of the Military Service Initiative, and Michael McMahan, director of Institute Operations, served as judges alongside executive director of the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, Jeremy Smith, and chair in education policy and leadership at the Simmons School, Dr.
Michael McLendon.

“The judges were asked to be themselves and use their own experiences,” Patel said.

“Each judge approached the debate differently, focusing on education, impact, sustainability and national security,” Patel said.

Ultimately, the debate, which ended in a sudden death round, represents the growing partnership between the Bush Institute and the SMU community.

“These are some of the highest caliber experts in their fields and some of the brightest people we can come in contact with at SMU,” Rudrappa said.

Bing plans to continue holding debates at the Bush Center for future Global Health courses.

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