Interview: Barbara Bush on the global health fellowship of a lifetime

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Global Health Corps, an organization that promotes global health equity by connecting outstanding young leaders worldwide with organizations working on the frontlines, recently announced that it is opening up the application process for a fifth class of fellows for 2013 to 2014. 

I had a chance to talk to Barbara Bush, co-founder of Global Health Corps (GHC), to get a better sense GHC’s evolution over the years, Barbara’s inspiration for the organization, lessons learned, and challenges that GHC has overcome.

The 13-month fellowship is available to anyone (no matter what nationality) 30 or under at the time of application, has an undergraduate university degree by July 2013, and must be proficient in English. No past experience in healthcare is required. Read my exclusive interview with Barbara for details and background on the fellowship, then apply here.’

Erin: You’re in an elevator with a stranger who knows nothing about GHC. How do you describe GHC to them in 10 floors or less?
Barbara: Global Health Corps is building a movement of emerging leaders who believe health is a human right. We believe in the powerful notion that young people can make an impact in the field of global health now, and they’ll continue to be leaders in making change on global health issues throughout their careers and lives.

Global Health Corps mobilizes a diverse group of young professionals from around the world to serve for a year within one of our partner organizations working on the frontlines of the fight for global health equity in the US and sub-Saharan Africa. Fellows always work in teams of two–an international fellow partnered with a fellow from the host country—making this a truly global group of young leaders committed to results.

Fellows work on a wide array of issues, from rolling out maternal and child health programs in Malawi, to strengthening drug supply chain systems in Rwanda, to providing HIV counseling and testing in Washington, DC. Throughout the fellowship year, GHC invests heavily in training in partnership with Yale University, mentorship, community building and leadership and professional development so fellows leave their fellowship equipped to be global health changemakers.

What was your inspiration for starting GHC, and what has inspired you most since?
When I was 21, I was lucky enough to be on the ground for the launch of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in Uganda, and witnessed first-hand the roadblocks so many people faced in getting appropriate health care and nutrition to lead happy, prosperous lives. It was really an eye-opener for me.

Following college, I worked in South Africa for Red Cross Children’s Hospital and in Botswana with UNICEF which further shaped my understanding of the complexity of health systems. Despite major advancements in health and science, so many people suffer from severe health and malnutrition and I wanted to do something about it. Then in 2008 at the aids2031 Young Leaders Summit hosted by UNAIDS and Google, I was connected with the other co-founders of GHC (Andrew Bentley and Charlie Hale from Google and Dave Ryan and Jonny Dorsey from FACE AIDS).

The six of us put our heads together and came up with a business plan to mobilize young people to combat some of the world’s toughest health problems.

What unconventional skills make for a good fellow?
Our fellows have a very diverse set of skills and professional backgrounds, and we certainly encourage those outside of the traditional medical field to apply. We intentionally work to build a diverse community of fellows and alums so that they can share best-practices and work together to effect greater change.

The specific skills needed depends on the particular needs of our placement organizations. We’ve had fellows who have been communications experts, supply chain management specialists, educators, engineers, nurses, management consultants, etc. We’ve had six architects work with our partner, MASS Design Group in Rwanda, overseeing the construction of a hospital and visiting doctors’ homes.

Most importantly, we’re looking for fellows who are committed to social justice and health equity, who value collaboration and flexibility, who are results-oriented and committed to mobilizing others to create greater change.

What lessons have returning GHC fellows brought back to the US with them?
Most of our fellows would probably speak about the importance of collaboration and teamwork in order to address and solve these complex health issues. They no longer think of health in silos but are encouraged to think of health issues in a systematic way—consistently reaching across borders and disciplines to create sustainable outcomes.

Of course, each fellow has a unique experience and will learn a range of things – both professionally and culturally – during the fellowship year but that has been one of the key takeaways I’ve noticed in our first four classes.

What’s been the biggest challenge you or your fellows have encountered that you didn’t anticipate?
Global Health Corps has changed enormously since we wrote our initial business plan—we’ve learned so much from translating an idea into an actual program committed to outcomes—but the mission has stayed the same. Community is integral to our theory of change—everyday we work to build a community of young leaders with similar values and provide them with opportunities to partner, share best practices, and work together.

Because an enormous amount of young people are interested in global health, we hope to continue to grow and offer opportunities to more young leaders from around the world.  Growing from 22 fellows in our inaugural class to 110 in our upcoming class has required us to constantly focus on our commitment to fostering community while encouraging our fellows to be movement-builders and engage others – both in GHC and more broadly – in health equity.

Interested in becoming a GHC fellow, or know someone who might be a great fit? Visit http://ghcorps.org/connect/apply/ before February 3rd, 2013 to apply.