When Students Become Teachers: The  Southern Sudan Medical Education Collaborative

Lessons from Abroad

In April 2011, I had the distinct pleasure of joining the Southern Sudan Medical Education Collaborative (SSMEC) on a trip to Juba, which is now the capital city of the Republic of South Sudan. This would come to be one of the most formative and memorable experiences of my life.

At the time, I was a 4th year medical student at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and I was tasked with what seemed like an impossible undertaking to me: to teach medical school subjects to students at the University of Juba College of Medicine (UJCOM). At the time of my travel, Thomas F. Burke, MD, the Chief of the Division of Global Health and Human Rights at Massachusetts General Hospital, sought volunteer medical students from partner institutions to participate in the SSMEC program to supplement the medical school education at UJCOM. The university’s medical program was sorely lacking due to professor absenteeism, decades of civil war and political strife, and a host of other issues.

Carefully and methodically, over a period of months, I put together lesson plans for my assigned subjects: neurophysiology and reproductive physiology. I finished my final revisions just days before my planned departure to Juba. However, the real learning did not begin until I arrived in Sudan.

Through the irreplaceable experience of spending dozens and dozens of hours face to face with my students over a period of six weeks, I built friendships and learned that it was the difficult set of circumstances that was keeping my highly-motivated students from becoming fantastic and skilled doctors, rather than their own abilities. Through grading exams and our classroom discussions, I found that many of my students were unbelievably intelligent and sharp. I realized further that if my students had been transplanted into a more stable and reliable education system, they may have already become doctors and been on their way to treating patients’ illnesses. I wanted nothing more than to help them succeed. In so many ways, my students’ experiences reminded me of what Paul E. Farmer, MD, PhD long ago described as "structural violence," wherein it is the environment that the students encounter that makes it so difficult to progress along the path to becoming a doctor.

Medicine cannot be easily learned in a fragmented, non-continuous manner, and other additional circumstances disadvantaged some of my students as well, including dwellings without proper ventilation, lack of a reliable source of clean water and/or food, a paucity of or lack of ready access to educational materials, and most importantly, a lack of reliable professors to teach year-round. Having spoken with the friends I made in my student group, I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve overcome in their personal lives to arrive where they have: in the student’s seat seeking to better their future and their country’s future.

The SSMEC experience and program was captured in a documentary film called “Between the Earth and Sky,” which premiered in March 2012. Looking back now, I remember my students so fondly – they had hearts of gold and were so appreciative. They are South Sudan’s future and hope.


Vivek Kalia, MD MPH is a current Musculoskeletal Radiology Fellow at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, NY. Read more about his experiences in a blog post he wrote soon after his trip to Juba here.

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