A Short Interview with Gail Emrick, MPH

by chelseajin

A short interview with Gail Emrick, MPH, after her presentation “A 25 year journey in International health Care” where she talked on her experiences with border health, service learning, and her work in Central America.

Gail Emrick studied at Columbia University, obtaining a dual degree in a Masters of Public Health and International Affairs with a focus on Latin American Economical and Political Development. She was most recently in El Salvador for 10 years.  During that time she served as the Project Director in a regional food security initiative with nonprofit Project Concern International, based in San Diego, California she worked at the United Nations World Food Program with Public Relations and Marketing.

The responses written in this interview have been paraphrased from the original transcript.

Do you think “service learning” is an essential experience in any health-related profession? Do you think this is something that can be integrated into medical school curricula?

It should be. With service learning, you make a connection with the people you’re helping. It puts a human face on topics like “illegal immigration”. It is an introduction to complexities surrounding what a clinician would only see the symptoms of. These things include educational level, economic challenges, and the cultural environment.

There’s a big difference between immersion and a classroom experience. There’s a lot of mention of “cultural competence”, which isn’t teachable or something you can just read about —it’s a heart-mind connection.

I definitely think there’s ways to integrate this into medical school curriculum. Unfortunately, clinicians are pressured to do more procedures, which don’t necessarily make better clinicians.


Do you think anyone who goes to these places (underdeveloped or border areas) can return as the same person? There are a lot of similar short-term trips that are organized to give students “hands-on volunteer experiences” but don’t seem to have the same profound effect on participants.

No, that’s the point [that you do change].

Service learning is an intentional environment, which is the critical difference.

You do readings to prepare, analyze in groups and independently. You do critiques and reflections in group. Being in a group is important because it helps to channel what you’ve seen and what’s difficult to process alone. It took me 25 years to be able to talk openly about my personal experience with disappeared people.

By doing this, you see and understand environmental causes and impacts.


What do you think of the religious component of humanitarian aid? You mentioned Catholic missionaries.

I’m a spiritual person. I believe there is a spiritual connectedness, a human connection.

Spirituality is something all cultures share. The Catholic Church happened to be the Church offering humanitarian aid and accompaniment during Central Americas conflicts of the 80’s.


What are your thoughts on going abroad to places like these versus staying here in the United States where there is also need?

Most Americans are politically naïve about the effect that U.S. policies have on other countries. If you have a chance, go abroad and think about what you’ve seen. You can’t understand your own culture until you go outside and look in.


Do you think political measures are needed or just more health personnel to ameliorate the condition of people in these border areas?

A combination of both.

Everyone has a role. Like I talked about in my presentation today, the priest from El Salvador told me to go back to my privileged country and share their story (of the violence, poverty, human compassion, etc).  In the U.S., people talk about the 99% vs 1%, but actually we are the 1% by virtue of being from in the US. We are privileged. As health professionals, it’s our responsibility to advocate. We can’t ignore economic and political realities. My message is to use the blessings you’ve been given wisely.