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How Barbara Bush Is Helping Young Innovators Change Global Health

Her Global Health Corps takes applicants from all kinds of professions and puts them into situations where they can help reinvent how we treat disease both at home and abroad.

How Barbara Bush Is Helping Young Innovators Change Global Health

You’re the daughter of a former president, and the spotlight will probably be hovering in your vicinity for the rest of your life. If you’re smart, you’ll realize that that attention can be used to do good in the world. For Barbara Bush, daughter of George W. Bush, the first family spotlight has quickly turned towards Global Health Corps, a nonprofit co-founded by Bush that pairs up international young professionals (not just doctors), where they work for a year at global health organizations in poor communities in the U.S. and abroad.

The idea for Global Health Corps came in 2008, when Bush met Peter Piot, the former head of UNAIDS, at a conference. He asked the audience how they might continue his work when he retired, and soon after, Bush met her founding team—including two Google employees and the executive director of FACE AIDS—who would help carry on Piot’s work.

Bush with some of the fellows.

I caught up with Bush and Adanna Chukwuma, a Nigerian Global Health Corps fellow working in Newark, New Jersey, at the 2012 Social Innovation Summit, where the pair were speaking about the Global Health Corps program.

Bush acknowledged immediately that she never intended to start the organization, which got more than 4,000 applications for 90 positions in the last class. "We’d all recently graduated from college, and 20% of our class applied to Teach for America. We assumed that something like that existed for global health," she explains. "We figured we would support organizations, give them ideas, and champion them. As we met with more and more people and organizations, we realized this didn’t exist. So we went to Partners in Health and said we have this idea, you should start it, and they said 'You start it and we’ll be your first partner." Today, Global Health Corps has nearly 50 partner organizations, including the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Dignitas International, and Society for Women Against AIDS.

Even if you’re not a doctor, you could be qualified for Global Health Corps. Bush says that fellow classes are intentionally diverse—they do include some doctors but people come from diverse backgrounds: some are filmmakers, some are business majors, some are urban planners.

She gives the example of one fellow who formerly worked on supply chain management for Gap jeans. At Global Health Corps, he ended up working for the Clinton Health Access Initiative on drug supply chains in Zanzibar. Last year, architect fellows in Rwanda worked with MASS on the Butaro Hospital, a building that helps keep patients healthy by providing ample natural light to patient beds along with natural airflow that ventilates the building without the multiple air changes per hour that most hospitals require. No matter your skills, there is a place for you in the global health sphere.

Chukwuma is in fact a medical doctor—an overachieving one who also has a masters in Global Health Science from the University of Oxford. A simple Google search for "global health fellowships" led to her discovery of the Global Health Corps, where she was assigned to work at the Department of Child and Family Well-Being in Newark. It’s not surprising that Chukwuma, who talks faster and more enthusiastically that almost anyone I’ve met, is taking on some big initiatives. She’s currently working on Let’s Move Newark!, the local version of Michelle Obama’s popular initiative. "We’re looking at not only educating children and mothers and families, but dealing with some of the structural issues, taking away vending machines that offer unhealthy food, and refurbishing parks," she explains.

Chukwuma in Nigeria, where she designed a campaign to prevent worm infestations and malaria among young children.

She’s in touch with fellows working across the U.S. and Africa—Burundi, Washington, D.C., Uganda, Zambia, and elsewhere. "We need to remind ourselves constantly why we’re here, constantly talking, encouraging each other. When we talk about partnerships, it isn’t just a buzzword. We are beginning to partner on projects before we leave Global Health Corps," Chukwuma explains.

Despite her successes in Newark, she plans to return to her native Nigeria to get another doctorate. "I’m interested in public health challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa. In many ways, Newark is facing similar challenges," she says. "And suddenly you have this leader [Cory Booker] against all odds to lead the transformation."

Global Health Corps is accepting applications for its fifth fellowship class here. But be warned: there’s already stiff competition. Over 500 people applied on the first day.