International immersion experiences do not, in themselves, provide students with the opportunity to develop cultural competence. However, using an anthropological lens to educate students allows them to learn how to negotiate cultural differences by removing their own cultural filters and seeing events through the eyes of those who are culturally different. Faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Global Health Institute believed that an embedded experience, in which students engaged with local communities, would encourage them to adopt this Cultural Competency 2.0 position. With this goal in mind, they started the Field School for the Study of Language, Culture, and Community Health in Ecuador in 2003 to teach cultural competency to medical, veterinary, pharmacy, and nursing students. The program was rooted in medical anthropology and embraced the One Health initiative, which is a collaborative effort of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to obtain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment.
In this article, the authors identify effective practices and challenges for using a biocultural approach to educating students. In a semester-long preparatory class, students study the Spanish language, region-specific topics, and community engagement principles. While in Ecuador for five weeks, students apply their knowledge during community visits that involve homestays and service learning projects, for which they partner with local communities to meet their health needs. This combination of language and anthropological course work and community-based service learning has led to positive outcomes for the local communities as well as professional development for students and faculty.