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U-M Student Extends Project Healthy Schools to Bangladesh
Michigan Ag Connection - 06/11/2018

Since 2004 U-M's Project Healthy Schools (PHS) has created programs in 100 middle schools throughout Michigan, teaching healthy eating and exercise habits to children. Now the program has extended its reach to Bangladesh.

The overseas expansion is the work of U-M rising senior Faatimah Raisa, who went through the program when she attended Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor; she also served as a PHS Health Ambassador in high school, teaching the program to sixth graders. Raisa has spent her summers in Bangladesh since she was a child, and she spearheaded the effort to establish PHS at two schools there and adapt the curriculum to meet local needs.

The collaboration highlights the positive ripple effects an ongoing engagement effort can have on the people it touches.

Raisa's travels to Bangladesh enabled her to witness changing dietary habits that coincided with the country's economic growth, and prompted her to take action.

"The idea came to me: 'There's a problem and I can do something about it. I should do something about it,'" she said.

Raisa worked summers between her freshman and sophomore years with PHS and the Michigan Clinical Outcomes Research and Reporting Program (MCORRP). She reached out to doctors in Bangladesh for a needs assessment and they confirmed what she'd suspected -- they were seeing an increase in juvenile diabetes.

"What I saw was Bangladesh became more affluent and, as a result, the diet changed very rapidly because food accessibility increased," she said. "Fast food, which wasn't even a thing 20 years ago, was suddenly almost everywhere."

She consulted with teachers in Bangladesh and faculty at U-M to evaluate whether and how the PHS curriculum needed to be modified for students there. In addition to dietary habits, there are other differences that needed to be taken into account, including more limited exercise and intramural sports opportunities for students, a cultural stigma on women exercising publicly, and fasting for religious purposes.

How did they adapt? They modified a standard PHS lesson and named it "Exercise Around the World," which encouraged students to find ways to move their bodies within the constraints of their own culture. They changed the "Jump Start Your Day" healthy breakfast lesson to include healthy ways to break a fast.

Raisa also enlisted the help of her cousin, Labiba Omar, a college student in Bangladesh, to help train high school students as Health Ambassadors. So far, two schools in Bangladesh have run a pilot of the adapted PHS program.

"We were originally just going to present the material, propose the PHS program, and then talk about how and when we could implement the program. But the schools were so enthusiastic that we were able to move forward and train the Health Ambassadors and set up the whole program," she said.

This summer, with funding from a Davis Projects for Peace award that she received for her efforts, Raisa is working to bring the PHS program to three more Bangladeshi schools. She also received funding to expand the program's reach from the U-M International Institute.

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