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Brigading for better health

While some students returned home for spring break or took much-needed vacations, others traveled the world to study abroad. 

Through the Global Medical and Dental Brigades, the 2015-16 West Virginia University Student Organization of the Year, 49 students and four faculty members volunteered in rural Nicaragua for nine days, providing more than 6,700 hours of service and $110,000 in medical and dental supplies to the resource-reduced region. 


“I am motivated to plan these trips because of the opportunity to work with some of the bright and brilliant students at the University,” said Daniel Brewster, an instructor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “To teach in settings like an empty pool in Nicaragua, in a clinic, on a 90-minute bus ride or in the home of a stranger is something that is indescribable.”

Working alongside 13 medical professionals, the group served 2,257 patients in the Nicaraguan communities of Sisle and Mancotal. Patients traveled anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to receive care.

“What motivated me at the beginning was an overwhelming desire to learn more about the world and help others in the process. I wanted to expand my horizons in a meaningful way,” said Julia Dunigan, a junior biology major from Fairview, W.Va. “This organization puts the people first. When we woke up in the morning, we put ourselves aside and focused purely on service. I think that having that mindset and goal every day, and then seeing the results first-hand, is what has me coming back again and again.”

The clinics offered triage, consultation, dentistry, gynecology, health education and a pharmacy. Patients also received an electronic file to facilitate future visits to Global Brigades clinics. 


“The memory I will never forget from this year was watching my students carry a 105-year-old patient into consultation after watching a long line of people move to allow her to jump a long line. There were no comments about someone jumping line. Instead, there was a noticeable reference to the elderly woman and her family,” Brewster said. “I didn’t instruct my students to aid her, but they did in a way that was compassionate, caring and thoughtful. It brought tears to my eyes to see the acts of kindness from the community members in line as well as my students.”

In addition to volunteering in the clinics, the group worked to improve public health for five families in the San Gabriel community. Working alongside the families and other community volunteers, they constructed septic tanks, outdoor showers and outhouses. They also dug nearly 500 yards of trenches for a water brigade to establish a clean and sustainable water supply from the local rivers and streams.

“I spent a lot of time with two little girls named Diana and Daniella. They lived in one of the houses that we built a sanitation station for. They were so excited that we were there and helped us build the walls of the unit,” Dunigan said. “They brought me cement in a cut-up soda bottle so that I could reach up high to lay it on the blocks. Those little girls worked harder than I did! They were so excited for this bathroom, and I had so much fun working and playing with them. I don't think I will ever forget the joy they had.” 


The students spent their final day experiencing the culture of Nicaragua, exploring the city of Managua and traveling to Cerra Negro, an active volcano.  

“This was my third year doing this particular trip, and every year I walk away a new, revitalized person. I’ve always drawn inspiration from others, but this year, I was put in a position where I surprised myself and made myself realize that I can do anything I set my mind to,” said Joey McGuire, a junior biology major from Phillipi, W.Va. “If anyone is interested in service, healthcare or even Spanish to English translation, this trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity that will change you for the better.”

Faculty accompanying the group included Matthew Wilson, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, Genesis Snyder, instructor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Candace Griffith, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Sociology of Anthropology.

To complement their study abroad experience, the students, who represent 19 majors, enrolled in Sociology of Health and Medicine, a two-credit course taught by Brewster. Prior to departure, the class met weekly to discuss health, medicine, public health, political science and anthropology topics relating to Nicaragua.  

Global Medical and Dental Brigades

“I think this trip has the amazing potential to change people for the better. I have seen so many students come in unsure about where they are going in life or what they want to do. They have an idea of maybe a doctor or a dentist, but no real passion to push them toward it. What we see and do transforms us into confident, motivated people,” Dunigan said. “If you had met me three years ago, you would not recognize me because I was an insecure freshman in way over her head. I learned that I am strong, confident, compassionate and a good leader.”   

In its seven-year history, the WVU Global Medical and Dental Brigades has offered medical and dental clinics in Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras. Plans for spring break 2018 are ongoing. 

“I have really developed a greater love and understanding of sociology through my work with these students in these regions of the world,” said Brewster, recipient of the 2017 Neil S. Bucklew Social Justice Award. “Sociology is now being incorporated into examinations like the MCAT, and I truly believe all students would benefit from this type of course that allows them to better understand the sociological imagination, ethnocentrism, cultural values, norms and beliefs, as well as differences in socioeconomic status, health, medicine and sex and gender.”