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In Defense of Millennials, the Global Generation

Global Education
Credit: Marco Verch, Creative Commons

The word “millennial” isn’t exactly a compliment these days. The problem is, all the criticisms out there – “they’re too picky!” or “they’re entitled!” or “they spend all their money on lattes and avocado toast!” – have left it mostly with a negative connotation and rarely a positive one. Any praise for those born between 1981 and 1996 seems to be quickly drowned out by the headlines, memes, and social media posts reinforcing the same old stereotypes of an entire generation.

But, in all fairness, millennials are also known to be altruistic, ambitious, and passionate about social injustices, more so than previous generations, many have argued. A USA Today article even described them as the most civic-minded generation in over half a century.

For some proof, look at this generation’s interest in global issues.

One recurring theme I’ve noticed in writing about and researching education is the heightened desire to train or work abroad in underserved areas among this age group. When I would write about the incoming and outgoing classes at the Perelman School of Medicine, the number of students who had either worked or studied overseas in a health setting or were planning to in the future seemed to grow every year. And it’s not just at Penn.

Studies show that the number medical students studying overseas has increased significantly over the decades. In fact, the number jumped from 6.4 percent in the mid-1980s to over 27 percent in 2017, according to a study in BMC Medical Education and an Association of American Medical Colleges survey.

Megan Doherty, the administrative director of the Penn Center for Global Health, has watched the interest grow from the time she started her career back in the early 2000s at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, when millennials were heading into undergrad, many with volunteering and travel experiences already under their belts.

“In my time at the engineering school, the interest in global opportunities just grew and grew in our program,” said Doherty, who coordinated local and international opportunities for the engineering undergraduate students and faculty. “And that continued when I got to the medical school, especially as the global health program became even more centralized and coordinated.”

To accommodate the growing interest and remain competitive, many schools have beefed up their global health programs over the last decade or so. “It seems to be growing exponentially,” Doherty said. The Perelman School of Medicine has seen its global presence and programs grow and evolve in recent years, with both research and clinical rotation opportunities for students and residents. Interest in doing a “year-out” – taking a year off between the third and fourth years of medical school – in a global health program has grown in popularity, too.

Under the Penn Center for Global Health, the Botswana-University of Pennsylvania Partnership, which started over 17 years ago, allows both medical students and residents from a wide-ranging list of departments to spend time in the African nation. Penn also has a presence in Guatemala, Tanzania, China, Rwanda, and Peru, among many other countries around world, and most recently started a partnership in Vietnam.

“In my time at the medical school, I have been really impressed by the number of students who are coming to us with a deeper interest level than when I first started,” Doherty said. “You talk to them and you can tell they really thought it through – they’re really passionate about it. This is not just ‘voluntourism’ for them, more of them are asking questions about how you can turn this into a career.”

New opportunities continue to pop up in the medical school and clinical departments across the health system, including one in Pathology I recently wrote about. Starting in 2016, the department began sending two pathology residents twice a year to Botswana to work in the University of Botswana Medical School and Princess Marina Hospital. The goal is two-fold: give residents an experience in a developing nation and help train the in-country residents to become full-fledged pathologists.

Speaking with the Penn residents for the story made me quickly realize that each had a strong desire to not only help underserved patients but also provide sustainability. It wasn’t just about getting a new experience or resume building; they wanted to leave it a better place.

“The fact that I was able to connect with the Botswana residents, and hopefully provide them with some valuable information so that they can continue the boards process and get certified and provide expertise for their growing health care system is wonderful,” said Salvatore Priore, MD, PhD, who is now a molecular genetic pathology fellow at Penn and traveled to Botswana last year as a resident. Before medical school, he spent time in rural Haiti helping build up their health system.

One comment I left out of the piece came from Kumarasen Cooper, MBChB, DPhil, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn and faculty lead for the program. It sums up the qualities he’s seeing in younger people wanting to go abroad.

“The people who sign up, they somehow have that empathy built within them,” he said. “When they come out there, they just want to help...They’re happy to do any little thing that is requested of them. They just dive into it. It has been a pleasure watching them.”

The 2017 Millennial Impact Report, a yearly report from the Case Foundation that analyzes the impact and social engagement of millennials, echoes a lot of that sentiment. It’s filled with insights on what drives them to act and what’s important to them. Health and equality rank fairly high.

“Millennials are interested in improving the quality of life for people they see as needing such help,” the report reads. “Their interest in the causes and social issues of personal consequence remains constant. However, their interest in causes and social issues of national or global consequence can and do change, dependent on the current environment.”

For many medical students, volunteering, as well as traveling outside the United States, has been part of their story since high school and even before – which could help explain why many head out of the country to make a difference as they move along in their careers.

Awareness of global issues continues to grow, as well. With ease of travel and information at everyone’s fingertips to read, share, tweet, and post, people are more plugged into events happening around the globe, and often in real-time, Glen Glauton, PhD, vice dean and director of the Penn Center for Global Health, noted in a video message posted on the center’s website.

That exposure, he said, has opened up people’s eyes to the disease burden and disparities that exist in other places. And who’s better tapped into that flow of information than a millennial?

More importantly, they seem to be doing something about it.


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