NURSING in a New Culture

College’s first study-abroad experience for nursing students takes them to Guatemala

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/magazine editor

From northcentral Pennsylvania, where even the modest city of Williamsport includes in its limits two hospitals and a pair of bachelor’s degree-granting colleges, a group of students traveled to meet the medical needs of a community whose nearest major hospital is almost two hours away.

Five students – all pursuing bachelor’s degrees in nursing – traveled to the small community of Nueva Santa Rosa in Guatemala to experience firsthand what they had read about in textbooks.

“During classes, our textbook has a section on cultural diversity,” said H. Alex Simcox, of Montgomery. “We actually got to experience that.”

Experiencing it with Simcox were Kelsey L. Maneval, of McAlisterville; Christina M. Mossman, of Wellsboro; Ashley M. Otto, of Lehighton; and Katherine Santoianni, of Williamsport.

The students were accompanied by Christine B. Kavanagh, instructor of nursing programs, and joined a larger group of volunteers from Glens Falls Medical Mission. Twice each year, the group from Glens Falls, New York, operates a weeklong medical clinic in a Nueva Santa Rosa church compound.

When they arrived at the clinic, the students found a line of patients waiting to be seen. During their stay, the volunteers would see 1,300 patients, most often communicating through translators.

The students took turns in five areas of the clinic: triage, where they directed patients to appropriate specialists; dental, where they provided fluoride varnish to children; pediatrics, where they measured the children’s height, weight and head circumference to help indicate their nutrition status and state of health; women’s health, where they assisted with exams and treatment; and general medicine, where they helped with treatment and provided basic education.

About Guatemala’s economy

Alex Simcox takes a patient’s blood pressure.
  • More than half the population is below the national poverty line
  • 23 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty
  • Nearly half of Guatemala’s children under age 5 are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world

Source CIA World Factbook.

Many of the patients, Maneval observed, were not sure of the issues behind the medical instructions they received. She’ll use that in her nursing career.

“Every patient that comes to see me, I am going to realize that they might not be educated,” she said. “I am going to take the time to explain to them what we’re treating them for and why.”

The students were enrolled in a study-abroad course, the first in Penn College’s nursing program. In addition to the work they did on-site, they spent time learning about the culture they would see, completed online modules to prepare for their dental duties, and kept a journal of their experience. Shanin L. Dougherty, coordinator of international programs for Penn College, hopes to continue to offer the course and accompanying service trip each fall.

Not only were the students the first to complete a nursing-specific study abroad experience, but they had to prove themselves to the experienced crew from Glens Falls, who had never before accepted so many nursing students to join them.

“They proved themselves, just by being flexible and positive,” Kavanagh said. “There was nothing beneath them.”

The students’ attitude was no doubt affected by that of their patients.

“People had a world of issues, medical and otherwise,” Otto said. Many of those issues were more complicated in Guatemala, where medications and treatment are not as accessible, than in Pennsylvania. “But they were so positive.”

Penn College offers short-term study abroad experiences to:

Ashley M. Otto bonds with a child in the courtyard outside the medical clinic.
  • France and Italy to study new collision repair processes and techniques
  • Europe and the U.K. to study historic art and architecture alongside modern sustainable building practices
  • Central and South America to study the mathematical systems of the Maya
  • Dominican Republic to provide dental hygiene education to the public and participate in clinical training
  • Guatemala to complete a clinical nursing experience at the Glens Falls Medical Mission