WHAT DOES TRAVELING ABROAD MEAN TO YOU? A week of tropical pool-side relaxation or a chance to explore an unfamiliar culture? For Indiana University student Lauren Diffendarfer, traveling abroad meant an opportunity to gain invaluable experience as an aspiring medical student and physician. In addition to her studies, Lauren is the Medical Educator at the Disque Foundation and has lived out the foundation’s mission of empowerment through social good with her recent shadowing trip to the Dominican Republic.
Lauren is pursuing a BS in Biology, and stays heavily involved with health care in her local community. She volunteers at her hometown hospital in the Birthing Unit, as she hopes to eventually specialize in Obstetrics, Gynecology or Pediatrics in medical school. Lauren traveled to the Dominican Republic with Gap Medics Organization, a specialist company providing hospital work experience placements abroad to pre-med students around the world.
Shadowing abroad programs take you behind the scenes of your future career and help you form a mature understanding of your passion for health care when it comes time for your medical school applications and interviews. Here are some benefits of shadowing abroad that may be advantageous to your career:
- See the world of health care in another country, possibly an under-served country, which can ultimately help you better understand, appreciate and utilize what is offered to you locally
- Enhance what you have learned in school by learning similar practices in other countries and systems
- Network with other professors, students and medical professionals both domestically and abroad
- Find new interests within or similar to the field you are interested in
- Develop personal passion for health care
- Have unique shadowing experience on your graduate applications and resume
Lauren gave us some important and valuable insight on her experience shadowing abroad, and we just had to share! Here are 9 things you need to know before shadowing or volunteering abroad:
1. Not every volunteer program is right for everyone
Volunteer program referrals can come from a thousand different places. Regardless of how you find out about the program, doing research on your own to compare programs prior to committing is vital! Their Instagram may have a ton of followers, but do you know their mission? Make a list that compares a few of your top potential picks of organizations and see how they fit with your top priorities. Research and assess their impact, read testimonials, be sure their goals are locally driven, and contact someone in the volunteer organization who can answer all of your questions.
We asked Lauren: What shadow abroad program did you pick?
I chose to go abroad with Gap Medics Organization they have several locations across the world. They allow students to gain shadowing experience with dentists, medics and obstetricians. I shadowed an Obstetrics and Gynecology specialist. They hold global health tutorials, so you learn about the health care system in that area, and I was able to work at a non-for-profit hospital.
2. Things will probably be worse off than you expect
Everyday won’t go exactly as you planned. Shadowing abroad, especially in underserved countries, will bring challenges that you will probably feel unequipped for. The power may go out mid-operation, people might not receive the help they need, you may feel pressures you’ve never faced prior, the water may not be safe to drink, and the pollution might be worse than you’ve ever seen. Whatever the case may be, expect the unexpected, but no matter what you will have the experience of a lifetime.
We asked Lauren: What was the most difficult part of the trip?
One of the biggest challenges was the language barrier. Brush up on common words and phrases of the country’s language before you arrive. In the Dominican Republic, the hospital was where everyone came for health related appointments, it could be an operation or a yearly check-up. Doctors in my hospital were incredibly dedicated to their work, staying the entire day, seeing person after person to empty the crowded hospital. We take so much for granted in the U.S. I realized. There were so many differences in the health code, anesthesia, and operating room preparation that some patients even walked down to the O.R. before surgery.
3. You won’t be able to do everything you may want to do
As a student, you”re probably eager to get hands-on experience. You have a passion that you feel you cannot contain, but you may have to once placed in real world situations. You are a volunteer, and people may be hesitant to give you responsibilities even though you feel you can handle them. It’s important to have respect for the leaders and the locals, as you are on their turf now. It’s important that you prepare for these restrictions, and continue to work where you are needed with a grateful heart.
Immerse yourself in the culture around you, ask locals questions about their lives, and try to learn some basic phrases in their language to help them feel more comfortable around you. Be a valuable volunteer by being realistic about what your role will be.
We asked Lauren: What was the best moment of the entire trip?
I got to scrub in on one surgery. The patient needed a hysterectomy, but unfortunately I didn’t have the proper medical training to cut the stitches. Instead I actually got to hold the uterus after it was removed! The doctor showed me specifically what was going on as she worked, so I got to see everything.
4. Shadowing abroad won’t land you a career right away
This is true, but it will enrich your education, give you hands-on experience and look great on your resume. Still, it’s important to connect with local hospitals, health care facilities and organizations after your volunteering abroad experience to gain more hands on experience in your hometown. Keep shadowing and volunteering as often to continue your growth as a medical professional.
We asked Lauren: What volunteer plans do you have in the works for the future?
I really want to do one to two medical mission trips before going to medical school and will continue volunteering at my local hospital. Also, I will be going to the Disque Foundation summer trip to New Orleans. Nothing is finalized yet, but we’re going to be rebuilding the lower ninth ward and hopefully holding CPR certification seminars to teach the local community how to save lives!
5. You will learn a lot about your chosen educational path and future career
In addition to learning during the trip, it’s important to implement what you have learned into your life as a student or intern after you have returned. Upon returning, consider reaching out to local organizations with a similar mission to continue volunteering and advocating.
Tell your friends, family, professors and co-workers about your experience! Tell your peers about the issues you helped solve, stories of the people you met and the highlights of the trip! Each time you share a story, you are multiplying your reach and inspiring others to follow in your footsteps.
Assess how volunteering abroad changed your perspective on your education and career pursuit! Did you work in a ward that you found a new interest in? Did you learn about health issues related to your medical specialty? Speak with your academic advisor and see how your experience could impact your path while studying.
6. You will learn about myself
You will find yourself in conflicting situations that will make you feel more emotions than you have ever felt before. What do you need to know? It’s okay to breakdown. Getting to better know yourself in another country and culture is an inevitable part of the process, so be willing to look within and grow from it.
Many volunteers choose to blog or journal their daily experiences to reflect and remember. Writing about your days is a perfect way to tap deep within, and explore self-discovery. These journals can be used later on when writing application essays for college applications or medical schools.
7. Check what diseases are prevalent in the country you will be traveling to
This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget and without it, consequences can be extreme. Make sure your vaccination are up to date and if there are any new vaccines you should receive before leaving the country. Many second and third world countries have diseases that we unfortunately don’t have to think about in the U.S., but you still need to be aware of. While volunteering abroad, you’ll be the most susceptible to these foreign disease as your body won’t have immunity to it. Common vaccines needed when traveling abroad include: MMR, Yellow Fever, Hepatitis, Malaria and Typhoid vaccines.
8. Currency exchange rates are different everywhere you go
You will have to convert your country’s currency into the local country’s currency. It’s important to pay attention to the rate everyday, as it varies daily. After traveling to the Dominican Republic, Lauren told us that although some places you can get away with using dollars, you often get ripped off a little with each transaction. Also, she recommends looking into how much the money is worth so you know what you are spending.
9. You will miss it
Despite the struggles, unexpected adventures and fears, you will most likely miss many parts of the experience. From the locals you meet, the patients you help treat, the smiling children you see or the location itself, there will be parts of the volunteer abroad experience that you will yearn to feel again.
What’s the good news in all of this? You can continue volunteering! Volunteers are always needed, consider making it into a lifelong passion as a travel nurse! Travel nurses help with the international nursing shortage, traveling to fill desperately needed positions.
We asked Lauren: Where else would you like to shadow abroad?
Really any country, I love to travel. I feel like looking at health care specifically is more interesting in third world countries because you see more, but also you feel like you make a bigger impact because that’s where they need the most help. I loved shadowing the doctor, it’s something I would definitely do again.
Volunteering is something many consider, but only a handful actually undertake. Volunteering or shadowing abroad as a health care student or intern can be a life-changing and unforgettable experience. Being cautious, safe and mindful before, during and after your trip and implementing these 9 tips is a crucial step in having the best experience.
We want to know: Have you volunteered or studied abroad? If so, where? Comment below!
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