I have always been told that studying abroad is on the list of ‘College Must-Dos’ and I am glad I took advantage of the opportunity before I prepare to graduate in May. Here is a list of my top reasons to study abroad:
Visiting Guyana helped me in growing as a person and gaining a wider world perspective. Before our study abroad trip, I had a fixed image of what a developing country looked like, based off of images I had seen on television. When we arrived in Guyana, we found, as my colleague Ashley Skinner described in her recent blog post, “a community who makes use of the resources available to live the best possible life.” During our trip, I grew as a person by being exposed to things that were out of my comfort zone and by learning life skills along the way.
Experience a new culture
Studying abroad allows students to gain a better understanding and appreciation for other cultures. Traveling to Guyana was my first exposure to a new culture and I took in every moment. From interacting with local people to understanding the way others live, I did my best to fully immerse myself in the experience.
Take in the view
Have you heard of the saying, “Stop and smell the roses.”? Well, honestly, you should. When in another country, it is important to take time to become calm and reflect on your experience, and even find a deep appreciation for the beauty that surrounds you. During my trip to Guyana, my time of reflection filled me with a sense of gratitude for being fortunate enough to be having this new experience and for getting to see new things.
Eat new food
Wow, let me tell you – the amount of flavor packed into every meal is amazing! The great thing about Caribbean food in Guyana is the various Chinese, African and Indian influences. Although we ate chicken and rice just about every day, I enjoyed it all, especially the curried chicken and pepperpot. Wherever you go, go with an open mind and empty stomach because you are bound to find some new delicious foods!
Make lifelong friends
As I mentioned in my last blog post, never did I think it was possible to feel this close to a group of people in such a short amount of time. Studying abroad allows you to connect with the people you are traveling with on a whole different level because you all are experiencing something for the first time together. I am happy to say that I will forever cherish the memories that were made on my trip and I will be closely connected to my group of friends.
As we all stood in a clustered group at the American Airlines terminal awaiting the last of our study abroad group members to arrive to the San Antonio International Airport, I glanced around and questioned: How will I relate to my peers in the program and where will we feel most comfortable in Guyana?
The introvert in me began to get anxious as I thought about how I would be spending the next 11 days with a group of people I barely knew in an unfamiliar place. I thought back to my reasoning for signing up for this study abroad trip and told myself that if I wanted to experience something new, I would need to find comfort in being uncomfortable.
After a few days of working in Georgetown Public Hospital and sitting window-side during our drives in Georgetown, Guyana, it was nice to take in the view as we passed by the same buildings, shops and seawall every day.
Through our interactions with the locals, we were always greeted with welcoming smiles and open arms. The growing familiarity of our surroundings in Georgetown and the hospitality of the Guyanese people made me feel more comfortable with being abroad.
Our group of mass communication students would get together any chance we had to tell each other our stories of the day. I enjoyed the times we stayed up late talking and the night we decided to stay in and make spaghetti for dinner. By sharing these similar experiences with each other during our study abroad trip, it brought our group closer together.
Throughout the duration of our trip, we also began to learn more about each other – our childhood, our fears, our goals, and much more. I found that I began to feel a sense of belonging with the group of people I once considered strangers.
Never did I think it would be possible to feel this close to a group of people in this short amount of time. As I reflect on our study abroad trip to Guyana, I am grateful for the many friendships that were made on this trip and I could not have asked for a better experience. Together, we created a home away from home in Guyana.
The health professions students, in partnership with International Service Learning, hosted three days of free medical clinics in local villages near Masaya, Nicaragua. An average of 45 patients were seen each day at the clinics; in addition, the students cared for elderly residents in a local nursing home.
Marylyn Kajs-Wyllie, a professor in the St. David’s School of Nursing, went to Nicaragua with the 2016 study abroad program which was joined by a group of mass communication students.
“Since there was a mass communication team tagging along with the nursing students, there was an idea to push for an inter-professional team,” said Kajs-Wyllie.
At the time, the College of Health Professions was pushing for collaboration between its programs. An inter-professional experience abroad would provide students with a community in a work environment.
But first, Kajs-Wyllie needed to find faculty members and their students who would agree to join her on the 2017 trip. She contacted Gregg Marshall, the chair of respiratory care at Texas State University, who put her in touch with other faculty, such as Sharon Armstead, a clinical assistant professor in the respiratory care department.
“Marylyn reached out to me via email to ask if I was interested in joining nursing on the trip,” said Armstead.
During a College of Health Professions graduation ceremony, Kajs-Wyllie asked Armstead to go on the trip and Armstead agreed.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity for the therapists to go,” said Armstead.
Meanwhile, a clinical assistant professor in the clinical lab science program contacted the chair of the nursing school to see if there were opportunities for her students to work with other professions.
“I serve on the inter-professional education committee and the study abroad committee,” said Joanna Ellis. “I wanted (the clinical lab science students) to have respect for the other roles. If we learn from each other and health care together, we will impact healthcare results in the future.”
With the addition of Ellis and Armstead and the mass communication students, Kajs-Wyllie assembled her 34-member team.
Expectations and Worries
The first inter-professional health professions study abroad team came with a lot of pressure and expectations.
“I wanted the nursing students to learn focused assessments, the culture, Spanish, to appreciate the differences in nursing and the differences between what we’re used to with what they have,” said Kajs-Wyllie.
Students from the nursing school practiced focused assessments during the medical clinics in rural villages.
“It gives you a lot of confidence,” said Desiree Davis, a senior in the nursing program. “Once you start asking questions, you learn what other questions you need to ask about the information for the problem the patient is having.”
Every faculty member on the team had their own expectations for the trip, as well as expectations for the entire group.
“I wanted (the clinical lab sciences students) to get a mutual respect,” said Ellis. “If we were able to go to the labs at the hospitals, we could talk about the labs in the group debriefings and show (the other departments) that we are taught a very different skill. We have a lot to offer and wanted to show them that.”
In Nicaragua, healthcare specialties such as clinical lab science or respiratory care, do not exist like they do in the United States.
“They don’t have us as a profession where we were going,” said Armstead.
Without resources for the level of education required to provide specialty care in Nicaragua, there are not many doctors who can provide the care that Armstead, Ellis and their students gave.
While some professors worried about limitations in their ability to apply their knowledge and skills, others worried about how their presence would effect the lives of the residents in the communities they visited.
“I was worried about our impact on the culture and the community here whether it would be positive or not,” said Ellis. “I was worried about the emotions that would ensue during the home visits and the nursing home.”
After seeing how well the 2017 team of students worked together, the faculty members recognized many benefits of having an inter-professional team.
Students utilized their acquired skills and applied them to caring for patients. That strengthened their ability to provide healthcare and perform focused assessments. By working with other health disciplines, the students understood what the other health professional’s job entails.
“They will communicate better and have an understanding of what the nursing students have gone through,” said Ellis. “They will have a reference for what the other professionals have gone through.”
Gaining an understanding of what other healthcare professionals go through in their daily routine is paramount to making a better workplace environment.
“I had that moment where I knew I was making a difference in someone’s life,” said Davis. “You’re able to sit down with the doctor and tell them what’s going on with the patient and give your own assessment. You start to see the same illnesses and know the right questions.”
After hands-on experience and interacting with local physicians, the students were no longer timid about performing the healthcare skills needed to provide care.
“(Students) said that their confidence levels jumped,” said Armstead. “They feel comfortable approaching physicians. What we try to teach them, they already feel empowered to do it.”
Students were immersed into a new culture and learned differences in the healthcare between the United States and Nicaragua.
“It has prepared them for a multicultural world and encouraged them to give back or take part in a study abroad,” said Armstead. “Learning to learn Spanish will help better the care we can give them.”
Adjusting to a new environment didn’t keep the inter-professional students from accomplishing what their faculty wanted for them.
“I thought it was cute to see everyone working together,” said Armstead. “There was one time when a group of (clinical lab science) students sat together and I mentioned they weren’t mingling, but by the end of the week, you couldn’t tell who was in what department.”
When the St. David’s School of Nursing students from Texas State University signed up for two weeks of volunteer service at a third world country, they knew it wouldn’t be the same as providing healthcare in the United States.
What was not completely expected was that the experience would require them to use skills from their first days of nursing school and provide an opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture through the Nicaraguan people.
Stepping out of the comfort zone
Elizabeth Biggan, clinical assistant professor at St. David’s School of Nursing, said she prepares the students by talking to them about the poverty that they’ll see. She also shows them videos from previous trips, but she can’t fully prepare them for the clinics.
“Every bit of school that they go through at home is in a hospital where all equipment is readily available. All medications are readily available,” Biggan said. “It’s hard on the students to have a patient who needs medication, but they don’t have it and they have no way to get it. They really have to learn to adapt to the situation, but they also learn to get creative with their solutions.”
Experiencing those situations is what makes students’ nursing skills grow. In the Nicaragua clinics, they can’t rely on machines for reassurance.
Students manually check vital signs like blood pressure and temperature, something most haven’t done for four semesters. Biggan said this is where students step out of their comfort zones and learn to trust themselves.
The language barrier
The nursing students ranged from feeling confident with Spanish, to remembering some words from Spanish class in high school, to not knowing any Spanish at all. Some prepared for the clinics by studying the anatomical terms in Spanish. Others had to learn on the spot or rely on the translators, but the difficulty was part of the volunteering experience.
“The first house visit was mostly people looking at me and at one point even laughing, like ‘what is this girl saying?,’” said nursing student Bridgette Young. “By the end they were really understanding me and actually answering back without the translator.”
Massiel Acetuno, assistant team leader, said it’s difficult for the students to have social conversations when they’re not able to fully express themselves in the foreign language.
The students used their broken Spanish, hand gestures, facial expressions and voice pitch as they tried to make connections with the people.
“Volunteers try to do signs or play with the kids to bond with them,” Acetuno said. “Sometimes I feel helpless when I see them struggling with language but I like to see that even though they’re not speaking the same language, it’s like their souls connect.”
When people of different cultures meet
Acetuno, who is constantly introducing new people to her culture, said she enjoys it because it’s her chance to tell people why she’s so proud of being Nicaraguan. Acetuno describes Nicaraguans as people who welcome visitors and who receive them as family members.
“I love the most when we go to house visits and clinic days and they’re able to see by themselves that I wasn’t lying, that everything I said was true,” Acetuno said. “People still welcome you even though their houses are really poor, they always say to you ‘come in’ without any fear, without any doubt.”
The house visits to the communities are the first opportunity that the nursing students get to interact with Nicaraguans.
“They’re going to give you all the chairs for you to sit down. These people are so nice, so selfless,” nursing student Jessica Ramirez said. “They don’t have a lot to offer but they still keep offering.”
International Service Learning, the organization that plans the volunteering trips, identifies rural areas where healthcare is not easily available. This means that the conditions will be some that the students may not have seen before.
There were latrines, houses with dirt floors and without doors, wood cribs and unpaved roads. Despite the conditions, Nicaraguans displayed something else to their visitors.
“Happiness. They only show how grateful they are for the things that they have,” Acetuno said. “You may not see in their faces pain or sadness. You may not see depression, but most of the people that we see in the communities have huge problems. Sometimes they don’t have anything to eat that day.”
On the final day at the communities, the students handed out rice and beans, played games with the children and broke a piñata. It was a day to forget about nursing work and interact with the community they had been helping.
“I think the most difficult thing was giving the families rice and beans,” Ramirez said. “When we handed the parents food, that was real. We were giving them a means to survive for a week.”
Acetuno said that at the end of the trip it’s not just about helping people but also about taking the time to understand their situation, understand their history and why they are the way they are.
For nursing student Rachel Nading, leaving Nicaragua was the most difficult thing.
“I feel like it’s not enough. I feel like I could do more,” Nading said. “More in medical care, in treating people, just more.”
An immersive study abroad program in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication