“No experience in my life has transformed me both professionally and personally like my first trip to Africa,” says Melodie Hicks.

“As soon as I arrived in the small rural village of Makupo, I realized that there were overwhelming needs for health information and quality health care there,” she says. “But there were also tremendous learning opportunities for students.”

Hicks lives near Vankleek Hill with her artist husband, Ian Griffiths. She is an award-winning Nurse Educator and Coordinator of the Malawi Nursing Exchange at Vanier College in Montréal.

She did not anticipate being emotionally moved when she volunteered to sit on a steering committee to take a small group of Vanier students and staff to study HIV/AIDS in Malawi in 2008, part of a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) funded public engagement project.

The result of that first trip was the establishment of the Malawi Nursing Exchange in 2010, in which nursing students from the Kamuzu College of Nursing in Malawi are hosted  by Vanier College and learn about nursing in Canada while students from Vanier College provide health care in Malawi. More than 70 students from Vanier College have participated in the program.

A passion for global health

“The Exchange has developed a passion in me for global health, sustainable development and intercultural understanding,” Hicks says. Her students have carried more than $200,000 worth of medications to Malawi (donated by Canadian pharmaceutical companies), employed an entire village for eight years and provided thousands of hours of free health care to people in need.

To upgrade her own skills, Hicks enrolled in an online program at the University of British Columbia, earning a Certificate in International Development. “The Malawi experience has helped me better understand the health needs of Indigenous people and the many other cultural groups here in Canada,” she says. “Understanding culture is critical to the provision of meaningful care.”

The annual team of nursing students and staff see up to 300 patients a day, serving a total population of 22,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers and their families. Despite the demanding conditions, the Exchange is extremely popular among students. Seventeen of Vanier’s 35 final-year nursing students applied this year.

Alumni of the program continue to be involved, some of them going back on their own or joining organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross. The alumni also help to raise funds.

“The young people who have studied abroad with me continue to inspire me,” Hicks says. “I feel privileged.”