Penn State Global Medical Brigade Thriving In Post-Pandemic Era

In the fall of 2021, Chris Facenda-Torres arrived at Penn State’s campus after a freshman year lost to COVID-19. With things mostly back to normal, he browsed the Involvement Fair and came across the Penn State Global Medical Brigades.

Though he hoped the organization had an education chapter to complement his secondary education major, Facenda-Torres found himself interested in the medical chapter.

“I [didn’t] want to make my entire college career just education. I wanted to branch out and do things that weren’t directly related, so that was a big motivator,” Facenda-Torres said of his decision to join the club.

The organization is part of Global Brigades at Penn State, which contains other branches aside from the medical chapter. There is an engineering chapter, a law chapter, and a business chapter established, and each acts as its own club. Similar setups can be found at other universities and locations across the United States.

Admittedly, things were pretty slow when he joined. He recalled a volunteering event being held about once every two months and meetings being sparse with around six members regularly attending.

“The president and the exec board were doing the best they could, but it was just a hard time, and they were getting ready to go to med school,” Facenda-Torres recalled.

The former executive board asked around the club for students who could lead the club in the 2022-2023 year. Facenda-Torres indicated his interest and ultimately was selected as the new president of the club — a position he has served in for the past two years.

During his time as president, Facenda-Torres has revitalized the organization. Typically, the Global Medical Brigade takes an international trip over spring break each year. With COVID-19 restrictions, the organization hadn’t taken its spring break trip since 2019, which certainly put a damper on activities.

Facenda-Torres worked to increase participation within the club, beginning with local volunteer events that were more accessible to students than the international trip. Now, the club holds volunteering events at least every other week including at the Student Farm, blood drives, and the housing shelter located downtown. General body meetings are now attended by 20 to 30 people and feature professional development events and collaborations with the other chapters on campus.

When Facenda-Torres took over as president, it was a perfect time to bring the trips, known as brigades, back to the organization. Areas that are typically rural and underdeveloped will reach out to Global Brigades and the local coordinators and staff members in that country will then look for a chapter to send abroad.

This year, the Penn State Global Medical Brigade headed south to Guatemala, a country that was chosen with input from the entire club. Those who want to go on the trip then promptly begin fundraising efforts. It costs approximately $1,800 for the week per person, which included flights, housing, transportation, food, and additional donations to the organization to support the actual efforts in Guatemala, including medications and diagnostic testing.

Throughout the year, the club holds fundraisers including merchandise sales and working with the Bryce Jordan Center, generating funds for the club. Additionally, students can apply for scholarships which can offset or even completely cover the cost.

Leading up to the trip, members going on the brigade are required to attend a few extra meetings focused on cultural literacy and sensitivity and a basic Spanish lesson.

Once the brigade is on the ground, the work starts and continues all week. The stations, which provide basic healthcare, are typically set up within a church, school, or other local gathering area. Throughout four clinical days, students assisted local physicians at various stations to address oral health care, vision care, gynecology, and chronic pain.

The students also assisted with basic diagnostic testing and a small on-site pharmacy where residents could purchase medications for a fraction of the cost they would cost in the United States.

On the final day of their trip to Guatemala, the members of the brigade worked in a local school to help build a new stove for the school’s kitchen. They developed relationships with the local kids throughout the week, who even got them flowers and a hand-crafted gift for all of the help they provided to the community.

At its core, the Penn State Global Medical Brigade isn’t a way to travel. It’s a way to learn and to provide service, something Facenda-Torres stresses to club members.

“It’s a very hands-on experience. [Students] get to work with real patients, work with real doctors, in real situations. But something we emphasize is that we’re going to this country, but we’re not here to pretend like we’re [there] to solve their problems,” he said.

Entering a foreign country with the intent to solve a problem is “infeasible and irresponsible,” according to Facenda-Torres. He encourages the organization to consider the idea of being an “ethical volunteer.”

With these conversations, the club actively works to avoid the white savior complex or being a “voluntourist.” It thinks critically about why the countries it visits are underdeveloped and why those citizens live with lower standards than Americans do before even stepping foot into the country.

“One thing I tell my volunteers is that whether you like it or not, we are part of [that country’s] history now. We’re part of that history, but it’s up to us to decide how we are going to be different,” Facenda-Torres explained.

Facenda-Torres is wrapping up his final year at Penn State and will soon be moving on from the club that he breathed new life into. He expressed deep gratitude for his executive board along with each member of the organization that has been a defining point of his college career.

“I do really love this club. It’s definitely been one of the biggest accomplishments of not even just my Penn State career, but my life in general,” Facenda-Torres said.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a 2024 graduate of Penn State with a degree in immunology and infectious disease. She relocated to Williamsport but will not be taking any questions about what’s next in her career. Haylee continues to be fueled by dangerous amounts of caffeine and dreams of smashing the patriarchy. Any questions or discussion about Taylor Swift’s best songs can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter if you must.

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