Raleigh student at the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba
Joyce Malanda wants to be a doctor who cares for the people of Southeast Raleigh where she grew up, especially those who haven’t received the preventative medications they need to stay healthy.
To become the doctor she wants to be, Malanda chose to go to medical school in Cuba. This winter, she will become the first North Carolina resident to attend the Latin American School of Medicine outside of Havana.
She won’t be the only American there, despite the long-standing strained relationship between the United States and Cuba, highlighted by the 60-year-old U.S. trade embargo.
More than 200 Americans have graduated from the school, and about 42 are enrolled now, according to Ajamu Dillahunt of Raleigh, who serves on the board of directors of the Interfaith Foundation for Community Organization, or IFCO, an ecumenical group of 55 years based in New York.
IFCO, which supports the end of the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, is facilitating applications and travel arrangements for U.S. students attending medical school. Dillahunt said Americans learn in part simply by living and working with students from dozens of developing countries.
“You are able to get unique experiences,” he said. “And you can learn about medicine through a social justice lens, a socially conscious lens. I think it’s rare.
Fidel Castro opened the school in 1999 to train foreign students from Latin American countries devastated by hurricanes. Enrollment was quickly extended to students from other countries, including the United States, after members of the Congressional Black Caucus turned up and demanded that Americans be included.
All students are invited by the Cuban government, which pays their tuition fees. In return, they must commit to returning to their home countries and practicing medicine in the poor and disadvantaged communities that need it most.
Malanda says his heart is set on returning to Southeast Raleigh.
“There are so many things I want to give back to my community,” she said in an interview. “I love my people and I love serving my community. I believe that real activism and real change starts within your own community.
Cuba’s free tuition allows Malanda to earn a medical degree, but that wasn’t the only draw.
She says she was first drawn to medicine as an undergraduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, but was disillusioned for two years as a certified practical nurse. Too often, the patients she worked with weren’t included in conversations about their care, and it seemed like the focus was more on expensive treatments than on prevention and wellness.
Next, Malanda took a study trip to Cuba, where she says she visited a clinic where doctors lived among their patients and made regular home visits.
“After listening to a family doctor who worked at the clinic explain his role, I was thrilled and so happy because I was like, there’s another way of practicing medicine that’s possible and happening here in Cuba,” Malanda said. . “When I came back, I knew I wanted to go back to medicine. But I wanted to learn medicine in the same style I had seen it practiced in Cuba.
She must be fluent in Spanish
Malanda says her thoughts on healthcare were also shaped in part by watching her father cope with a debilitating illness as a little girl. When his condition worsened, he went to the hospital emergency room, where he recovered just enough to be sent home.
She was 9 years old when her father died, without having received the comprehensive care he needed.
Teaching at the Latin American school will be in Spanish. The seven-year program begins with a year of intensive language training, and Malanda says she will return to Raleigh able to speak with its growing Latino population.
She says she plans to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.
“I know that women — especially women of color, black women, women from low-income backgrounds, disadvantaged women in every way — fare worse when it comes to maternal and child health” , she said. “So I want to focus there.”
Like any medical student, Malanda will need to pass the US medical licensing exam and apply for residencies in hospitals or clinics. Dillahunt said American graduates of the Cuban school had no trouble getting a license and finding work.
Castro’s critics call him a dictator who crushed dissent in his country and flouted human rights. Critics called the Latin American School of Medicine a propaganda tool for him.
But both Dillahunt and Malanda refer to Castro as “commander-in-chief,” the title many have used for him in Cuba, and speak of him with admiration.
Dillahunt holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from NC Central University Durham and is working on a Ph.D. in history at Michigan State University. He said he does not believe that general American attitudes towards Cuba are reflected in the radical government policies that seek to isolate and punish the country.
He says Cuba is a country of principles and describes Castro as honorable.
“He recognized a shortcoming. In the United States, students, especially students of color, could not study medicine because of the high price,” he said. “Cuba has long been a friend of the American people, and especially African Americans, within the United States. And so, in my view, this is a continuation of that relationship and a commitment to humanity.”