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Whether in business, medicine, or leadership, the University of Miami prides itself on providing specialized opportunities to help its students get the experience they need before they earn their degrees. For students in the University’s Nursing and Health Studies program, this experience can be a lot more hands-on than most.


Described as a “three-day field experience,” students that signed up for a new program at the University are able to immerse themselves in the stresses of a simulated disaster firsthand, preparing themselves to one day distribute actual humanitarian aid. Over the course of the program, students will have to manage both the unfolding disaster as well as themselves as they forgo their own comfort to help others. 


The program—the first of its kind on a college campus—was constructed by Humanitarian U, an organization dedicated to improving the humanitarian workforce. It is designed to realistically simulate a disaster, with students rapidly deploying with only the bare essentials with the expectation that they may not be able to properly eat or sleep for some time as they assist. Though the students never leave campus, they will stay on-site for the duration of the program and get a glimpse of what a life providing humanitarian aid is like. The course also includes an online component for the students to educate themselves before the main event.


“We all want to help, but how uncomfortable are you willing and able to be to help?” said Susana Barroso-Fernandez, assistant professor of clinical at the School of Nursing and Health Studies. “It’s better to find out now than when you land in chaos in the middle of nowhere.”


In fact, 90 percent of responders to humanitarian crises go into a calamity with no prior field experience, adding another level of disorganization to an already chaotic situation. Managing inexperienced workers can even be detrimental to relief efforts. This issue has led to changes in disaster response groups. The World Health Organization now requires members of emergency medical teams to have relevant training—both in the knowledge that their need and their ability to withstand the psychological pressure.


Humanitarian U has assembled a group of volunteers to act the part of victims in the midst of a devastating crisis. Though this program is the first of its kind, the organization hopes that more colleges will take notice and implement similar training measures given the likely increase in humanitarian crises in the next few years. Additionally, Miami is one of the first major cities that will likely be affected by a widespread ecological disaster—a fact not lost on the students and instructors.


Though it’s never ideal for there to be a need for disaster response, the University of Miami is creating opportunities for students to specialize in the field and make a real difference for aspiring responders.