By Julia Symons

It was with a slight sense of apprehension that I found myself boarding a flight to Podgorica, Montenegro. After all, I knew little of the place, least of all how to pronounce it. But an even greater sense of uncertainty was engendered by the reason I was going there in the first place: to attend the 66th IFMSA General Assembly in beautiful Budva. This was my first such meeting and I had no idea what to expect. But now that I am home – having paid off my sleep debts, continually procrastinated over unpacking and had the chance to reflect – I can state that this meeting is up there as one of the most valuable experiences of my life to date.

I attended SCORA, which is the Standing Committee on Sexual and Reproductive Health including HIV/AIDS. The content covered a whole range of topics: we had external speakers from the WHO, on cultural barriers to ending FGM, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. We had peer-led workshops on a tremendous range of topics: from obstetric violence to comprehensive sexuality education via paraphilias and a debate on breast cancer screening. However, alongside the formal learning, I was inspired by efforts of other medical students to bring about lasting change. For example, I spoke to some Egyptian medical students who carried out research about their peers’ attitudes to FGM. As some 30% of those surveyed were not aware that FGM was harmful, and 37% were not aware that it was potentially fatal, these students had embarked upon a countrywide programme of peer-led learning.

So what now?

The GA was a bit like an immersive dream: it was heartening to find common ground and resilience in the conflicted and intolerant world of 2017. But how does such idealism and hope translate to action? It has galvanised me to take further action both at home and regionally. I am excited about the collaborations I have made: I am especially excited become involved in the European Small Working Group on Refugee Rights and Health. In the UK, I will help write a policy statement on the important area of gender-based violence, and also have many ideas for potential campaigns and outreach activities.

Would you recommend it?

If you are reading these blogs and wondering whether or not to apply to a GA/Regional Meeting – just as I was mere months ago – then all I can say is go for it. In the space of a week I learnt from medical students and dedicated professionals all around the world; attended some fascinating plenaries and workshops; debated policies and argued over bylaws; collaborated with others to write a statement for General Assembly; managed to sneak out for a bit to explore stunning Montenegro; had some late night philosophical deep chats with new found friends from all over the world; tried horse milk at the National Food and Drink Party (which is like drinking liquidised fizzy goat’s cheese, in case you were curious); and, most importantly, went away inspired, and even more determined, to take action to improve health both in the UK and internationally.

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