Faculty Impact: How anthropology, a lost opportunity and a passion for vulnerable populations came together at UMSN
Megan Eagle’s connection to vulnerable populations literally began the day she was born. At the time, her parents were Peace Corps volunteers serving in New Delhi, India. Through the examples of her parents and her earliest life lessons, Eagle’s interest in helping the people who need it the most became deeply ingrained in her goals.
However, Eagle’s career took a detour before it even got started. It was the late 1980s and the anthropology major had a job lined up immediately after graduation to work on a public health and medical anthropology project in Peru.
“There was a growing problem with violence in the region and the offer was rescinded,” said Eagle. “I was at loose ends and didn’t know what to do.”
Eagle, who speaks Spanish fluently, found an opportunity to put her language skills to work as a volunteer in Tijuana, Mexico. She supported pre-school nutrition and adult literacy programs, and she interpreted for a nurse practitioner who provided women’s health services.
“That’s when I saw the value in having concrete, hands-on skills to offer the communities I worked in,” said Eagle, now a University of Michigan School of Nursing clinical instructor. “I thought if anthropology is the study of culture, and some define nursing as addressing human response to illness and health, maybe nursing is applied anthropology.”
The Value of Language Skills
Eagle believes the ability to converse with her Spanish-speaking patients is a vital component in providing culturally-competent care to meet the needs of patients.
“It’s incredibly important for people to be able to express their needs and symptoms in the language they are most comfortable, and receive information in the language where their comprehension is the strongest,” she said.
The interest in speaking multiple languages has stayed with Eagle from her elementary school days. She spent her kindergarten year in Prague and learned to speak Czech. However, those skills faded after she returned to the United States a year later and could no longer practice Czech with anyone.
When she got a little older, some teachers encouraged her to take Latin, but Eagle knew she wanted to learn a language she could use conversationally, and looking ahead, professionally. It’s been an asset in all of her jobs leading to U-M.
“I came to U-M for the opportunity to combine clinical practice and teaching at the UMSN’s Nurse Managed Health Centers, but I didn’t think I would be using Spanish a lot,” remarked Eagle. “However, at the Community Family Health Center (CFHC) where I practiced there were five Spanish-speaking patients when I started. Through word of mouth alone, we had more than 500 patients by the end of the second year.” Eagle provided care at CFHC and its affiliated outreach clinic in public housing for 11 years. After the clinic closed, she shifted to Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS) in Detroit where she spoke Spanish frequently with her patients.
Eagle works to instill the value of language skills and culturally-competent care in her students through their community health courses and global experiences, such as educational opportunities in Ecuador, where students visit health clinics, participate in home visits and learn from local practitioners.
“International experiences make students examine their unconscious assumptions of how things are done,” she explained. “They usually start out by noticing the weaknesses, but it doesn’t take long to notice the strengths, and it helps you see your own culture and health systems in a new light.”
The anthropology job in Peru may not have worked out, but for Eagle, the opportunity to incorporate a professional experience in Latin American into her career provided a full circle moment.
Eagle will be increasing her focus on global opportunities through a new role as deputy director of UMSN’s World Health Organization/Pan-American Health Organization Collaborating Center. It is one of only 10 nursing collaborating center in the United States.
In addition, she’ll assist UMSN’s Office of Global Affairs in finding new ways to increase research and other collaborations between UMSN and international peers, such as faculty from other universities and visiting scholars. She’ll also leverage those partnerships to provide additional global opportunities for UMSN students, especially for undergraduates pursuing UMSN’s Population Health in a Global Context minor and graduate students with a Global Health Concentration.
Eagle also leads nurse practitioner students at U-M’s Student Run Free Clinic for uninsured and underserved patients. It was initially a School of Medicine initiative, but as U-M’s focus on interprofessional education expanded, so has partnership at the clinic, with graduate nursing and dentistry students joining the efforts. The work aligns well with Eagle’s interest in improving care for vulnerable populations.
“If we’re going to improve health overall in this country, we have to help the people who need it the most,” said Eagle. “If we don’t, we’ll continue to have disparities.”
Eagle is furthering her own education by pursuing a Ph.D. in epidemiology.
“It fascinates me,” she said. “Epidemiology allows us to form hypotheses for questions that we can’t yet answer in a lab. It allows us to consider complex interactions between social forces and biology. Those skills are critical to understanding the impact of social policy on health.”
While her path may be very different from what she envisioned as a new college graduate, Eagle says she’s gratified with how it’s turning out.
“I’ll never regret having valued, concrete patient-care skills,” she says. “I would be a very different public health practitioner and a very different epidemiologist without my 20 years as a nurse practitioner in primary care.”