How to change the world without leaving home

UBC students find ways to tackle global issues despite the COVID-19 pandemic.


Ria Gupta always knew she wanted to spend a summer taking part in an applied research project abroad. But when the pandemic hit, the fourth-year arts student’s travel plans were suddenly stalled.

While disappointed, Gupta says it didn’t take long before she found a new opportunity through UBC’s Office of Regional and International Community Engagement (ORICE), which connects students with non-profit organizations in Canada and around the world working to address complex global issues, such as poverty and sustainability.

In response to the pandemic, ORICE quickly adapted many of its programs for remote delivery. For Gupta, that meant an opportunity to work virtually with one of India’s largest health networks, SHARP NGO, to help support the mental health of school children in northern India.

“While there were a lot of things that attracted me to this opportunity, the one that struck a chord immediately was that it was an opportunity to make a difference in India, my home country, where I have seen immense stigma surrounding mental health,” says Gupta.

‘A call to action’

Gupta’s story is just one example of the many ways UBC students, faculty and staff are embodying the university’s vision of inspiring people, ideas and actions for a better world.

On April 12, UBC officially launched its new global engagement strategy, In Service, which guides the university’s international programs, partnerships and educational initiatives at home and around the world over the next decade to help build a more just, sustainable society.

“At its core, this strategy is a call to action, buoyed by a deep commitment to act on the basis of humility not hubris, compassion not competition, and engagement not estrangement,” says Vice-Provost, International Dr. Murali Chandrashekaran, who led the development of the strategy. “That is why we chose the name In Service for the new strategy. We are not only working to serve people and the planet, but we are looking to learn from others.”

While the strategy is important at all times, it is especially vital now during the pandemic, adds Dr. Chandrashekaran.

“We live in a time of astounding inequalities, but COVID-19 has vividly laid bare the undeniable fact that the shocks and stresses that are an increasing part of the 21st century disproportionately affect the world’s most vulnerable people,” he says.

Closely aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the strategy maps out UBC engagement with those it serves, encouraging students, faculty and staff to work together with communities near and far on problems they identify, and to collaborate in finding solutions.

“At its core, this strategy is a call to action, buoyed by a deep commitment to act on the basis of humility not hubris, compassion not competition, and engagement not estrangement.”  – Dr. Murali Chandrashekaran

In service to B.C. communities

For UBC Okanagan nursing student Hannah Dean, embodying the principles of the global engagement strategy didn’t require her to get on an overseas flight. The fourth-year student is completing a seven-week placement in Masset, a small fishing village on the northern coast of Haida Gwaii, as part of her program’s rural and remote global health nursing practicum.

“Haida Gwaii is pretty remote and, in a sense, it was quite outside of my comfort zone, but I’m really glad I decided to do this,” says Dean. “Many people don’t realize that, although we do have great health care in Canada, rural and remote communities do experience some disparities in care.”

For the nearly 800 people who live in Masset, the pandemic has proved especially challenging, she says. With only essential travel permitted to the island, the drop off in visitors has significantly affected the tourism industry. The island was also hit by a COVID-19 outbreak last summer.

“There are a lot of multigenerational homes in Haida Gwaii, so there is a risk of one person in the home getting COVID and it spreading to the family and elders,” says Dean. “And while there are hospital facilities, critically ill patients who require specialist treatment often need to be transported to a major hospital on the mainland, which adds another layer of stress for the patient and their loved ones.”

Jeanette Vinek, associate professor of teaching in UBC Okanagan’s school of nursing who helped develop the school’s rural and remote partnerships, says the opportunity to do community placements is beneficial for both the students and residents.

“The students are immersed in the community and have the opportunity to practice in many areas, from maternity to emergency, mental health and public health,” says Vinek. “They also work closely with the communities to determine what their needs are. We’re very fortunate that we were able to have conversations with the residents and health care leaders and to make it possible to address some of their challenges.”

For many rural communities in Canada, recruitment and retention of health care workers is an ongoing challenge. Through rural placements, Vinek says many nursing students who may not have previously considered it go on to work in those communities after graduation. Some are even offered permanent positions in the communities following their practicums, she says.

As a visitor, Dean says she feels grateful and privileged that the Haida Nation allowed her to travel to the island to complete her nursing practicum.

“I’d love to be able to come back and work here one day,” she says. “There’s such a sense of community and the nurses seem to know everyone, which really changes how they provide care.”

Giving back around the world

For Ria Gupta, working to support mental health for students in her home country of India was also an enriching experience.

She and her team designed a peer support-based program called “The Mindful Project” to be implemented in schools in northern India. As part of the project, senior students in the schools will deliver workshops to junior students about a variety of topics related to mental health. Afterward, junior students will demonstrate their understanding of the topics through a variety of projects that they will present at a mental health fair.

While the aim of the project was to make the students more mindful about their mental health and to help break the stigma surrounding it, Gupta says she didn’t expect the experience to also have a profound impact on herself.

“At first, I was apprehensive about our ability to make an impact, considering we were all working virtually and not in the field,” she says. “But after participating in this project and seeing its impact, I learned to look at things from the other person’s perspective and how to position my role in this process of change.

“This experience has been a valuable asset in my journey to start a career as a counseling psychologist.”