How international faculty projects can change lives at home and abroad

In a remote area of Nepal, an eight-year-old boy is carried into a tiny hospital by his grandparents. The boy has fallen from a height and sustained a complex fracture in his elbow. Treating the injury will require resetting and stabilizing bones, but this involves a specialized surgery and medical hardware not available to the only doctor in the area, whose hospital is hours away from the nearest city or specialist. Worse yet, the boy’s circulation has been impeded by the fracture, and without treatment, he will lose the use of his hand and forearm.

The doctor does what he can to set the bones and stabilize them, which he does by sedating the boy himself (there are no anesthesiologists where he works), setting the bones, and stabilizing the fracture with metal wiring, all while taking direction from an open textbook.

Incredibly, the surgery is a success. The boy will make a full recovery.

A week after the operation, Professor Karl Stobbe at McMaster University looks over post-operation x-rays from the case. Glancing over his shoulder, his colleague, an orthopedic surgeon, remarks, “That’s honestly as good a job as I could’ve done.”

It’s an incredible feat of medical resilience and resourcefulness that Stobbe says he has witnessed many times. For the past three years, Stobbe has been working with Nepal’s Patan Academy of Health Sciences to build the country’s capacity to train doctors for practice in rural areas, an effort that will have an enormous impact on the wellbeing of those living in these areas.  

“When you’re practicing medicine in a rural context, in Canada and especially in Nepal, you need to have an extremely broad skillset and need to be able to extend your skills, learn on the spot and safely tackle anything that comes your way,” says Stobbe. “Here in Canada, apart from rural communities, you often won’t find a doctor who is comfortable performing certain procedures outside their area of specialization; but the doctors in Nepal don’t have that option. It’s incredible what they’re able to do and what they can teach us about healthcare and resourcefulness in our own country.”

The work Stobbe is doing in Nepal is a project of Academics Without Borders, a non-profit group whose core mission is to work with volunteer academics to help developing countries build capacity at their post-secondary institutions to drive development and improve quality of life for all. For Stobbe, AWB’s approach to this project was crucial for matching his skillset to the right challenges and ensuring that the goals of the project were dictated by the host institution in Nepal.

“The most important thing for this kind of work is to make sure the project is truly being driven by the needs of the host institution,” says Stobbe. “By far, the most important and challenging thing as a Canadian academic is to know whether you’re actually going to end up helping. What’s the gap? Am I the right person? It’s wrong to believe that because we’re from Canada, we’ll inevitably be of assistance. That’s where AWB is incredibly valuable. Their calls for volunteers are quite explicit and specific, which is driven by their relationships with institutions all over the world and with the institutions of their member Network in Canada.”

In addition to sourcing projects and issuing calls for volunteers, AWB provides many supports to volunteer academics, which include but are not limited to:

  • Covering all faculty-volunteer costs associated with a project, including flights, insurance, accommodations, local transport, meals, and daily stipends where necessary.

  • Providing connection to a community of like-minded professionals who are eager to share knowledge and support the work of the Network in whatever ways they can.

  • Offering faculty and professional staff at Network institutions the opportunity to partner with post-secondary institutions in the developing world to propose capacity-building projects through periodic calls for project proposals.

  • Collecting and vetting proposals for projects from post-secondary institutions around the world and bringing these projects to AWB member institutions, so that Canadian experts interested in global development work can be confident that any project they find through AWB will have impact, and that they will be working with a committed global partner.

Today, 17 of Canada’s most globally conscious post-secondary institutions make up AWB’s member Network. For Stobbe, whose home institution of McMaster also acts as an institutional host for AWB, the benefits of membership in the Network are many, especially the opportunities available to faculty.

“I think that the volunteer academics come back with international connections that are non-traditional, quite often with collaborators and ideas that they didn’t leave with, and these connections benefit both them and their institutions as a whole,” says Stobbe, “because now you have a relationship with an entirely new country that is built on life-changing collaborations. It’s also important to have educators who’ve worked in different international contexts. I can say without doubt that my career and sense of purpose as an academic has been changed for the better by my involvement with AWB.”

If you are interested in learning more about AWB’s Network and how your school can become involved, please visit AWB’s website. Or if you’d like to speak directly with AWB’s leadership about this valuable opportunity, contact AWB Associate Executive Director Corrie Young here.

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