The phrase “it’s a small world” seems to become truer every day. Without leaving San Diego, it is possible to encounter people from a large number of cultures on a daily basis. Walking down the street, one can hear many different languages and see a wide variety of attire. Today’s health care and social service professionals need to be able to work with diverse populations with sensitivity and respect. That need is one of the driving forces behind CHHS’s requirement that all undergraduate students participate in an international experience prior to obtaining a degree.
Although students visit a variety of countries in a variety of ways, most come home saying they have an increased awareness and understanding of other cultures. They have a feeling for what it is like to be confused by what is going on around you and they report that it will make them better nurses, social workers or other healthcare professionals.
Kristin, a fourth semester nursing student, enjoyed her first international experience in China so much, she added a more extensive trip to Switzerland the next summer. In China, she had the opportunity to visit tourist destinations such as the Great Wall, but she also visited a hospital, a pharmaceutical manufacturer and a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. She found this experience fascinating because the diagnosis and treatment were so different from what she was learning in her nursing classes. She noted that, having experienced this type of treatment first-hand, and realizing how common it was for Chinese people to seek a traditional healer than a modern doctor, she would have to be more patient and more informative if she had a Chinese patient in the future. She also had a “taste of celebrity” as her blond hair and blue eyes made her a rare sight. She realized that many of the families visiting the Great Wall, for example, were on a once-in-a-lifetime trip away from their rural towns and had little experience with foreigners. So they clamored for pictures with her and she realized that being different than the norm could be both uncomfortable and inconvenient.
Preston, a recent social work graduate, travelled to Costa Rica for his experience. He noted that just travelling with a group of students who had never met before was an educational experience in handling diversity. In Costa Rica, he stayed with a host family so he had the opportunity to observe everyday life as well as visit a hospital and an orphanage, among other sites. He came home with a different perspective on the advantages of the United States and an increased respect for other cultures. The trip made him more compassionate and more open to new experiences. He also returned home with a drive to become active in an international issue. Since returning he has been involved with the United Nations HIV/AIDS prevention programs and Pink Dot – an organization that is advocating for marriage equality in Asian countries. He plans to continue his education soon and hopes to pursue a career in an international setting, which is very different from his expectations before he traveled to Costa Rica.
As a first semester nursing student, Brittany took a different path to complete her international experience requirement and spent a semester at sea. Over the course of the semester, she visited Spain, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Morocco and Portugal. The 600 students onboard the ship studied the history of each country before visiting it and took elective courses about specific aspects of the countries. Brittany studied comparative health systems and food anthropology. She noted that the trip taught her patience as she worked through language barriers. “Everyone was so kind to me, I wanted to be kind back.” She was struck by the gender differences she experienced, especially in the Muslim countries. In Turkey, she realized that going out for the evening with bare shoulders had been a definite mistake, not because anyone said anything to her but because she felt so disrespectful of the culture. She learned that she loved travelling but also new appreciation of the United States. She plans on travelling to South America with other nursing students this summer and plans a career with some type of international focus so she can “go back to help”.
On their international experiences, each of these students visited different countries and had unique experiences, yet each came home with the same overall understanding of the need to be sensitive to different cultural norms. These students also discovered they loved international travel and wanted to do more of it, and that they wanted a chance to reach out and help those they saw in need, regardless of the country they were in. These realizations will make them better nurses and social workers, as well as greater representatives of the United States and SDSU wherever their futures take them.