At 13,000 feet above sea level, University of Richmond sophomore Jack Wisnefske came face to face with the public health issues he studies in class. He was in the remote mountain village of Pampas Grande, Peru, to work alongside educators and health officials, but it was his emotional connection to local children and their families that struck him the most.

Four months earlier, before the school year began, Wisnefske and his future classmates in Rick Mayes’ Global Health, Infectious Disease and Human Rights class had started their journey to global health literacy. With nearly a dozen books to read and papers to write over the summer, they quickly learned to meet the high expectations for the course.

“While it seemed cumbersome at first, it really prepared us for the discussions we would have throughout the semester,” says Maria Sebastian, ’12, a political science and international studies major. “Our class is very discussion-based and oriented toward understanding different perspectives surrounding the human rights issues we study.”

Mayes, associate professor of public policy, teaches the course as one of the university’s Sophomore Scholars in Residence programs. Richmond offers six SSIR programs, each with a different academic focus, in which students with common interests live together and share experiences that extend their educations beyond the boundaries of the classroom — whether that is in their dorm, Lakeview Hall, or on another continent — in this case, South America.

According to Wisnefske, a political science and leadership studies major, the students are constantly identifying connections with what they learn in class while conversing back in their dorm. “Conversation usually floats back to the medical infrastructure within the United States and abroad and all of us can provide unique insight because of our academic backgrounds,” he says.

The trip to Peru over fall break gave them a chance to deepen their understanding of public health in developing areas. Over the course of the week, they volunteered with local dentists and doctors and taught local children about dental hygiene and sexual reproductive health.

“Each of us were able to put our different skills to use,” says Sebastian. “Some helped apply fluoride to hundreds of school children, while others assisted nurses at triage in the medical clinic.”

For Sebastian, who is interested in women’s empowerment in developing countries, one of the highlights of the trip was guiding discussions on healthy relationships with a class of high school women. “The great part of the trip was being able to tie in many of the concepts we had discussed in class with this hands-on experience,” she says.

This experiential aspect of the program is a main draw for many sophomores. For many, it’s about more than learning the class material — they want to take action. “I applied to the Global Health program because I was looking for a group of students who also believed in a certain sense of duty when dealing with human rights issues,” Sebastian says.

In the global health program, “... the lesson never stops after we have studied a certain issue. It then becomes a matter of what we can do in response,” says Sebastian, who will consider the same question in Uganda and Rwanda when she studies abroad next fall.

Wisnefske agrees, emphasizing that as a participant in the program, “You never really leave the classroom, so the subject material becomes part of you.”