MHA study-abroad program a model for global graduate education

By Sandra Snyder

Among the many key components of the University of Scranton’s Master of Health Administration program, one stands out, particularly in a world that is shrinking as quickly as it is expanding – in the best possible sense, of course.


Those best prepared to work in any health-care field, University faculty believe, will be willing to live in a global village and contribute in a meaningful way to building a better, broader world.

The University’s on-ground and online master’s program has been highly global for two decades now, and the best proof is presented through its study-abroad program in Slovakia as well as a host of developing countries.

Daniel West, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Health and Human Resources, explained the inner workings of an ever-expanding program that is flourishing thanks, in part, to a 20-year relationship with Saint Elizabeth and Trnava universities, two Jesuit institutions in the heart of Slovakia.

That relationship has allowed master’s-level students enrolled in the Global Health Management course to travel each January and May – eight to 10 per trip – to experience the type of immersive education typically only available to undergraduates, West said. It has all the rigor of an academic course, West said, plus offers a host of other opportunities unavailable in a Scranton classroom.

Traveling students and faculty, for example, regularly present research at an international conference on a health-care topic. They also lecture international Ph.D. students and interact with other international graduate students.

“We have a twinning project,” West explained. “One of our students interacts with another graduate student from there, and they work on the same project and present together. It’s a unique idea.”

In addition to Slovakia, students also visit Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, spending time with local health-care executives, touring hospitals and facilities, networking and preparing research papers for presentation at international academic forums at the close of the trip.

Many student travelers also seek the opportunity to publish their papers in international peer-reviewed journals, such as the European Journal of Public Health and Health Management.

The longstanding partnership, West said, all started because of a grant from the United States Agency on International Development, or USAID, and the support and encouragement of the Rev. J.A. Panuska, S.J., the University’s longest-serving former president.

When Slovakia, Poland and eventually Ukraine, Hungary and other countries became independent of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, USAID put out a call for grants because of its commitment to emerging democracies.

West said Panuska had presented a lecture at a scientific conference in Czechoslovakia, then written a newsletter for the faculty announcing the availability of funding for new partnerships.

“I was intrigued,” West said.

The rest is history, as it’s said. What resulted is, to West’s understanding, “the longest sustainable partnership USAID has ever had.”

“Twenty years later, it’s still going on,” he said. “It’s really a partnership that has transcended time in a very positive way.”

Starting out in Slovakia was especially meaningful because of the historical roots of the people of Scranton.

He noted the waves of people who came here from central Europe seeking opportunities in, for example, coal mining.

West noted several successful outcomes, from publications in a host of journals and faculty exchanges between universities to new relationships with additional universities and even personal, long-term partnerships in the form of marriages. Three students have met their spouses in Slovakia, he said.

West said the University helped develop an MHA program at St. Elizabeth University, which also hosts traveling Scranton students in its capital location. “Our faculty teach with their faculty,” he said. “There’s a very strong bond.”

The University also has played a key role in helping Trnava University reinvent its Jesuit identity – in partnership with Monsignor Joseph Quinn, former vice president of mission and ministry at Fordham University in New York City and now back in the Diocese of Scranton as a pastor.

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Trnava University, West said, had gone underground during the Communist era.

Current students, he said, “see the connection between a Jesuit education and what they’re doing. You begin to see the marginalization and what role you can play.”

Those roles are played in large and small cities and towns alike, and the rural countryside is not overlooked, even as the students make a home base of core cities.

 “We spend a lot of time in Bratislava,” he added. “That’s where we go to visit hospitals.”

Part of the learning process, which is especially important for students who have never traveled, involves comparing and contrasting health-care systems.

History is another huge component.

“They’re learning about the history of this world,” West said, noting the privilege of going into buildings and castles that were built in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries.

“We study architecture and the empires that dominated this region,” he said. “So there’s some history to it and some political science.”

Relevant health-care questions also are a key part of the observation and study.

“We raise questions about health-care reform and how they fund health care in their country,” he said, noting Slovakians have a right to health care.

“We don’t have that,” he said. “Students see all these kinds of differences.”

The expansive, inclusive perspective helps to develop “the whole person,” West said, especially when care is taken to add the architectural, musical and other components to the itineraries.

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In addition to academic curricula, West said, Scranton has had a hand in taking its mission values on the road through this partnership.

“As a result of our efforts, these universities have developed volunteer programs in developing countries,” he said, naming Sudan, Cambodia, Rwanda and Uganda as examples.

The University’s partner schools abroad have medical faculty, and they open hospitals, orphanages and schools,” West said. “And we participate with them.”

The original partnership has been so successful and replicable, he said, that it has spurred expansion from Eastern and central Europe into the Middle East and other parts of Asia as well as Africa and South Africa. The study-abroad program also now offers a South American trip to Brazil as part of one of the University’s newest international relationships, with Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, or PUC-Rio. Similar efforts also have begun in Tbilisi, Georgia – in the Caucasus Region – in Mexico and in Bogota, Colombia.

“There are 52 other projects worldwide that we work on together, from Vietnam to Sudan,” West said.

In West’s mind, several other expansion possibilities exist, and MHA students will flourish all the more as the growth continues.

Steven J. Szydlowski, M.B.A., M.H.A., D.H.A., a fellow faculty member who was part of the most recent trip to Slovakia from May 14-25, also sees the incredible chance students have to make their mark not only as professionals at home but in the world.

“Students truly develop an appreciation for culture and international health systems on a domestic scale but also on a global scale,” he has said, having noted that part of the value of such a global education is noting “how countries interact within themselves and with each other.”

Portland, Maine, immigration lawyer Sal Savatteri Jr., a 1996 MHA graduate who founded the globally minded Savatteri Law Firm in 2006, and Aimee Miller, a 2012 University neuroscience and pre-med graduate who expects to finish her MHA in 2016, can attest to that.

The University’s MHA study-abroad program “was really instrumental in my life and in creating my practice in international law,” Savatteri said. “All of the work that I have done has really grown from that one program. My whole practice is international.”

Miller, similarly, expects the program will be the impetus for an internationally focused career. She spent the first 12 years of her life in China and knew she wanted to work toward an opportunity to use both Mandarin and English language skills in health care. She also always had her eyes fixed on global health care.

The actual trip, she said, may seem short, “but we are preparing through the entire semester.”

“We have textbooks based on Slovakia’s health system and global health,” she said, explaining that students can shape the focus according to their own interests.

Miller’s interest is pediatric palliative care, so she was fortunate to have been able to present research at a palliative-care conference.

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She also echoed West in noting the value of interacting with people on societal margins.

“We toured a mental-health facility,” meeting 30 to 40 clients, she said. “It was interesting to hear about their societal problems.”

Miller also noted the eye-opening experience of witnessing health-care systems that don’t meet American standards, using paper records due to lack of funding, for example.

Not having even a basic electronic medical system, she said, “can be a source of medical errors.”

And especially edifying for Miller has been developing relationships with the MHA students at St. Elizabeth.

“Most are already specialized physicians in Slovakia,” she said. “I befriended two physicians, and they ended up coming over here to do their version of study abroad in July. It’s really from talking with them that I learn about their health-care system and what it’s like to be my age in a different country.”

She’s now publishing with some of the fellow physicians she met.

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The sum of Miller’s worldly experiences will have a lifelong impact, she said.

“Once you gain that global perspective,” she said, “you can never go back.”

That’s perfectly OK with faculty like West, who emphasizes the long term when discussing the study-abroad partnership and the weight it carries.

“I think it’s important when the University of Scranton goes out and engages the world that the project is sustainable,” he said, continuing, “The fastest-growing part of our university is in the graduate curriculum. We need to think about how we expose all of our students to study abroad, and this really has grown into a very nice model that can be developed.”