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A Funder and the Pandemic Bring H.E.L.P. to a Global Audience

Going Virtual Enables Course to Reach More Students Working in Health Emergency Locations

By Suzanne Flinchbaugh | February 19, 2021

Screen shot of students in Zoom January 2021 HELP course

In early January 2020, as Gilbert Burnham and Mija-Tesse Ververs wrapped up the 34th bi-annual Health Emergencies in Large Populations (HELP) course, they were growing more concerned about the COVID-19 news coming out of Wuhan, China. All signs pointed to an imminent global public health emergency declaration from the WHO, which meant holding HELP #35 in July would be a no-go. “And so, very glibly, and in a moment of weakness perhaps, we said ‘Oh, well, we’ll do it virtually,’ and in retrospect I’m not really sure we thought that through,” Burnham said with a laugh.

Weakness or not, on January 4, 2021, they opened the 35th HELP course on Zoom. Two weeks later, as everyone tuned in for a virtual “last class” celebration, 44 students in 14 countries spread across 13 time zones declared it a complete success. “It really went off well,” Burnham added wryly, “with a minimal amount of difficulties.”  

Which is not to say retooling the course was simple. First, Burnham and Ververs spent several months brainstorming with co-sponsors International Committee of the Red Cross and World Health Organization to understand what converting the two-week on-campus curriculum to a fully online platform would entail. Working with the School’s Center for Technology and Learning, several HELP co-instructors, and graduate assistant Lauren Tejkl, MSPH ’20, the team transformed existing course assets into very focused video modules.

The group also redesigned the syllabus to include more in-depth pre-course work and a pre-req quiz. This hit-the-road-running approach helped students apply knowledge immediately, which made for lively Zoom-room discussion sessions. Throughout the redesign, the team prioritized delivering exceptional instruction and quality student engagement, with the goal of retaining the course’s global reputation for excellence. Based on student evaluations, which are full of praise and appreciation, the course exceeded all expectations.

A key contributor to this success is HELP’s longstanding external champion—the Capital Group Companies Foundation, which has provided the School with annual course support for nearly 30 years. When Dean Emeritus Al Sommer first met with foundation officials in 1995, they were attracted to HELP’s distinctive curriculum, which filled a critical gap in providing humanitarian health education, especially for those in the field. The annual funding has been used exclusively for scholarships, particularly for students from disaster-afflicted areas around the world who simply were not able to enroll or who could not afford both course fees and travel costs.  The collaboration has evolved over the years to support several other School initiatives, including partial funding for a recent Johns Hopkins Alliance for a Healthier World Launchpad Grant that supports research on mental health disparities amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Global map showing HELP course students' home country locations

In terms of student participation, the eHELP course has been a pandemic silver lining. Students working in health emergency locations who were previously unable to make the trip could attend and participate fully, including, for the first time, students who had previously been barred by visa restrictions. As Colombian disaster public health physician Francisco José Sarmiento shared, “attending the course was a dream come true,” particularly as he pursues his doctorate in disaster science and management. “The beauty of the course this year was that those who had experience in the field could work with those who didn’t—it created a wonderful mix,” Ververs commented.

The HELP course is held in such high regard for its profound insights into the complexities of humanitarian health work, from defining disasters and learning the major actors engaged in the work to understanding international law and discussing effective public health strategies and tactics. Ayman Faroudi, who works in Turkey with Syrian refugees, appreciated the correlation between various sectors (e.g. WASH, food security, nutrition) and the overall public health situation, recognizing that a health emergency response is best viewed as a “comprehensive action where if one sector fails another sector will be impacted, like dominos.” 

The course is also famous for its capstone experience: a simulation of a health emergency. For HELP #35, emergency management international consultant and HELP team instructor Jean-Luc Poncelet masterminded a virtual earthquake scenario that was eerily like an actual emergency. Students worked in Zoom-breakout-room teams across multiple time zones, managing disease and nutrition issues, rumor control, political inputs, and conflicting and inconsistent information. American University of Beirut (Lebanon) student Carine Naim wrote that she appreciated time to consider “real-life case studies which demand ethical [choices] and hard decisions,” which are ever present in the field. 

As students and faculty alike celebrated the close of this latest, most unusual session, its success underlines the transformative nature of long-term investment in public health. Consistent support from the Capital Group Companies Foundation helped the team leverage its expertise and a deep library of assets to create a robust virtual offering for students that improved on the original. Burnham and Ververs consider the foundation a “true partner” in HELP’s crucial mission of providing the best possible training for humanitarian health workers, in the face of COVID and whatever challenges may follow.

Suzanne Flinchbaugh is a writer with JHSPH Office of External Affairs. To learn more about the Department of International Health's H.E.L.P. course, the Capital Group Companies Foundation's work, or The Alliance for a Healthier World, please contact Jessica Schmidt-Bonifant, Senior Associate Director of Development (