While many physicians may not be aware, there are a wide variety of U.S. State Department programs that provide opportunities for international exchanges for U.S. and foreign scholars. Some of these programs are potentially adaptable to a physician’s schedule, such as the Fulbright Specialist Program (FSP), which allows U.S. academics and professionals to participate in two-to-six-week exchanges at host institutions around the world. The goal of this program, per its mission statement, is to allow scholars to “share their expertise, strengthen institutional linkages, hone their skills, gain international experience, and learn about other cultures.”
A few years into my first faculty position after my residency training, I decided to apply to the FSP. I collaborated with a colleague, Dr. Yewande Oshodi, at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos in Nigeria, and ended up making three trips to Lagos between 2012 and 2014. Fortunately, I had a department chair who was supportive of my personal career goals, which allowed me to fit the international trips into my busy schedule as an academic physician. The Fulbright experience has been one of the many highlights of my career, and it has opened up additional doors for me. Below, I share what I learned with the hope that other physicians will be encouraged to explore such opportunities.
My Fulbright Experience
During my first trip, I was exposed to public health issues in Nigeria that I had been previously unaware of, despite having grown up in the country. For example, during a mental health workshop, a speaker asked if anyone in the audience knew someone who had attempted or completed suicide. I was surprised that several of the audience members did, as I didn’t realize suicide was that common in Nigeria.
As another example, during a discussion following a presentation I gave on substance abuse in children and adolescents, I learned that substance abuse in Nigeria often occurs in the form of petrol (gasoline) and glue sniffing. Finally, the workshop discussed the importance of educating pregnant women who frequently drink herbal concoctions without realizing that they contain alcohol. Such education is important, as there is no amount of alcohol considered safe during pregnancy. Though these lessons were specific to the Nigerian context, they would apply to those engaging in similar behaviors in the U.S. as well.
During my second trip, I had the opportunity to use my writing and editing skills, in addition to teaching. The main event for this trip was a workshop on child and adolescent mental health for school teachers. Prior to the workshop, I co-authored and edited a booklet on emotional and behavioral disorders in children and adolescents, which was made available to the participating school teachers.
One of the many advantages of the Fulbright program is that it provides opportunities for inter-professional collaboration and community outreach. In addition to school teachers, I presented to dental faculty and attended a research seminar at the American International School. I also visited a correctional facility for young girls.
During my final trip, we organized a series of workshops for medical and dental students. Although most of the sessions were focused on leadership skills, the highlight of the program was the creativity workshop. For this activity, the students were given no instructions other than to create something with the materials provided: colored paper, scissors, glue, cello tape, and writing materials, including felt pens. The results were remarkable! I was particularly impressed with the manner in which the students not only created works of art, but were able to connect their art to larger societal issues. The student who won the creativity award made a string of figures representing people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, signifying the importance of living and working together in unity, despite our differences — a message that truly resonates with the mission of the Fulbright program!
My participation in the FSP was rewarding in and of itself, but the benefits did not end with my three trips. In 2015, I participated in a Citizen Diplomacy Challenge, during which alumni of the Fulbright and other State Department-sponsored international exchange programs were invited to publicize and promote the programs in various ways. I ended up getting the second prize, which included the honor of a phone call from Dr. Deborah Birx, who at the time was the U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy and later served as the White House Coronavirus Coordinator at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, there are numerous opportunities for networking and further professional development. For instance, I participated in an alumni symposium where we discussed approaches to battling addiction from a public health perspective, during which I met Dr. Brenda Marshall, an NP with a doctorate in education. We successfully applied for two Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund grants, which are available to alumni from international exchange programs. We received our first grant in 2018, which funded an outreach program to end stigma related to addiction. A few years later, we received a grant that provided Mental Health First Aid training and health career sessions for high school and college students. In addition, I have been accepted to attend a seminar in Cairo on Women in STEM, one of several seminars that are held for alumni of State Department-sponsored exchange programs. All this would not have been possible if I hadn’t taken the first step in applying to the Fulbright program.
Beyond learning about new cultures and enhancing your professional development and networking pool, there are many benefits to being a Fulbright scholar. However, there are also some challenges. It can be difficult to coordinate and plan the details of each trip, and for serial trips, this gets even more complicated. For example, I required special approval for my third trip because more than a year had passed since the first trip. Nevertheless, the experience was well worth it, and having colleagues in Lagos like Dr. Oshodi who were fully committed and worked tirelessly to make it happen made all the difference.
I hope others will be inspired by these experiences to explore international exchange opportunities. You never know what the long-term impact of that one experience may be!
Have you ever participated in an international exchange program? What did you learn that could be applied to your own practice? Share in the comments!
Dr. Olapeju Simoyan is the medical director of New Directions Treatment Services and a full professor in the department of psychiatry at Drexel University College of Medicine. She has received several awards, most recently the Arnold Gold Foundation’s National Humanism in Medicine Award for exceptional leadership in placing human interests, values, and dignity at the heart of every health care connection, and Pro-Health International’s Award of Excellence in Humanitarian Services. Dr. Simoyan has combined her interests in writing and photography in several books, including The Amazing World of Butterflies, Living Foolproof, and most recently, Transformation and Recovery, a workbook for patients with addictions and other behavioral disorders. Dr. Simoyan strongly believes in the need to transform education and health care, with a focus on creativity, problem solving and integration of the arts and sciences. She is a 2022–2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz