Leaving your comfort zone is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding experiences you can have. It was for me. During my undergraduate years, I spent three consecutive semesters studying abroad in Spain and Chile fulfilling my Spanish & Latin American Literature and Culture major. I realized the importance of expanding my horizons, gaining a multicultural perspective of the world and becoming more culturally competent. As a public health graduate student, my travels to Latin America took a global health perspective. My mind was once again exposed to another side of the world that we often miss while secluded in our comfort zones. In Central and South America, I volunteered on heath initiatives and sustainable development projects, and conducted research. I witnessed numerous global health disparities including lack of sanitation, children living in homes made with plastic walls and dirt floors, and physicians striving to provide quality reproductive care to low-income, immigrant women at a family planning clinic with scarce resources.
My ultimate goal is to become a primary care physician to help reduce health disparities globally. Going abroad was one step towards that goal.
You might ask what Spanish & my Latin American studies have to do with medicine? And my answer is: everything. I view my experiences in Latin America as essential components of my education and training. They have helped me prepare for future work with marginalized communities both in the U.S. and abroad. Experiencing and learning about different Latin American cultures, their histories and lifestyles gave me a better understanding of the original environments of many Latinos in the U.S.; the beliefs they hold and the perspectives that guide their health decisions. Participating in community service projects and conducting public health research in Latin America helped me become more compassionate, culturally competent and sensitive to other’s people’s realities. It also reinforced my commitment to work towards eliminating health disparities in developing countries, as well as the underserved and underrepresented communities of the U.S.
Go explore the world outside your comfort zone. Whether you are interested in a career in medicine, public health or global health, getting out there to see the world with your own eyes will be life changing and may reaffirm or redirect your career path. There are many ways to find international opportunities. Here is a list of a few things you can do to get experience abroad:
- Study Abroad- Many U.S. universities have these programs available, and you can often take pre-approved classes that will count towards your degree! All you have to do is go to your study abroad department and ask. Advisors and staff are eager to help you find the program that best suits you. Through study abroad programs, schools usually help arrange your housing and transportation, and your tuition is often the same as staying at your residential program.
- Go on an Exchange Program- When a U.S. university does not offer sites abroad, they may partner with local universities. Classes might need prior approval from your university, but it is a great way to engage with local students, learn to navigate a foreign education system and substantially improve your communication skills in a foreign language. For these programs, you usually have to be fluent in the local language. It might be daunting having to figure out all of your classes on your own and to get them approved prior to leaving, then finding a place to stay and once in the country, figuring your way around…but it is extremely rewarding, and you learn a great deal of independence along the way. For these types of program, you generally pay your university’s regular tuition. (I went to Chile on an Exchange Program in 2009, if you are planning to head there…I’ll be happy to give you suggestions).
- Volunteer Abroad- There are many programs out there that charge exorbitant fees to take students to developing countries to do community service. My advice: Try not to pay over $500 plus airfare to do community service over a ten day trip. You can find local non-profits that are often based in the U.S. that would love to have a volunteer and will charge reasonable fees to cover lodging, food, and airfare. Sometimes you can even get lodging for free. Shop around and you will find them! (If you email me, I can suggest a couple).
- Conduct Research Abroad- For the most part, you will need funding to do research abroad, even if it is just to cover your living and traveling expenses. Ask your Principal Investigator, academic advisor or your institution’s administrators if they offer travel grants or research scholarships to help fund your maintenance expenses. Consider doing the research work for free! It’s a great experience; helps build your skills and looks very attractive on your resume. If you are having a hard time finding a research project abroad, talk to your program’s director, professors or advisors. They often have contacts all over the U.S. and abroad who might have a volunteer research opportunity of interest (that was how my I found research experience!).
In summary, international experiences help you hone an array of skills that are especially important when pursuing a career in global health and medicine.
Here are a few that I consider important for my future career:
- Become culturally competent
- Gain independence and self-confidence
- Improve your communication skills (written and oral in a foreign language)
- Learn a new language
- Develop new team work abilities
- Expand your professional network
- Learn to adapt easily to new environments
- Interact with peoples of diverse cultures
- Gain a multicultural perspective and expand your world view
- Learn about a new culture: its histories, traditions, and values
- Learn about local politics and policies
- Learn foreign medical practices
- Be exposed to other healthcare systems
- Network with many types of health care providers
- Learn about local health needs
- Learn sustainable development techniques
If you have any questions about international experiences or would like to share your own with other likeminded students, don’t hesitate to email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org