I GOT MY FIRST glimpse of Taiwan as I scrambled across the wet pavement from the airport to the bus. I had traveled there for school credit, a lighter fall credit load, and the opportunity to live in another country. By the time I left, I could not wait to tell my story.
The benefits of studying abroad are well documented. These experiences can enhance undergraduate nursing education by broadening students' perspectives on different cultures, stimulating interest in international work and research, building skill in a foreign language, and serving as a bridge between theory and practice.1 But studying abroad also presents many challenges. This article discusses both sides of my experience.
An interactive experience
Read found that only 89 out of 382 (23.3%) baccalaureate nursing programs listed in the American Association of Colleges of Nursing database offer a semester-long study abroad program. Of those programs, 76% reported that no more than 5% of their students took advantage of the study abroad experience.1 My school offered senior students the opportunity to study abroad for 2 weeks during the summer semester. We spent the rest of the semester conducting research for the trip before traveling and compiling reflections and portfolios upon returning.
I traveled with 12 other students and two professors for my community health clinical experience. Because patient teaching is a major role of nurses, that was my focus for this trip. I did not have any hands-on clinical experiences, but we interacted with people there with the help of our translators. The 13 students who attended were split into smaller groups of three or four, with each group presenting a health topic based on a specific age population.
- We presented information on Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease common in that section of Taiwan, at a health clinic that served visitors of all ages in a small, open setting.
- We taught children at two different schools the importance of nutrition and exercise. There, we interacted with the students on an individual basis.
- We visited two community centers, where we danced and enjoyed a noon meal with older adults while teaching one group about exercise and the other about breast and colon cancer awareness.
Learning about Taiwan's universal healthcare system stuck with me. In one instance, a student in our group who became ill spoke positively about the care she received, despite being a foreign traveler. This brought to life the meaning of equitable healthcare access.
Along with teaching health-related topics, I was also able to experience Taiwan from a tourist's perspective. I sampled Taiwanese fare at many restaurants, explored many cities, and took every opportunity I was given to try new things. One of my favorite experiences as a tourist was seeing the beauty of Taiwan at a place called Sun Moon Lake, which I circled with friends on rented bicycles.
Touring and presenting at each of the different locations, I noticed the people were always welcoming and happy to see us, even though many of them did not know our language. They always greeted us with smiles and warm applause and listened intently to what we had to say (which was then translated for them). Whether they already knew the information we shared with them, or even if it did not pertain to them, they each listened as though it was just for them.
Pushing past barriers
Just as with any beneficial experience, learning rarely comes free from trials. The language barrier was one of the toughest challenges of the trip. While I was abroad, our days consisted of visiting hospitals, schools, and various health centers. I looked into the eyes of the people there, and I wanted to ask about their stories and what they enjoyed in life. However, because of my lack of knowledge of their language, all I could offer them was a smile. They seemed to understand my offer of love and comfort because a smile is understood in every language.
Language barriers often challenge nurses in the US as well. Remember that a smile is universal, and that kindness can be conveyed through body language. It is up to you to make sure you are speaking through love.
Many of us are offered chances to make a difference or experience something new but decline because it is outside our comfort zone. When it comes to taking chances, remember that a new opportunity is always waiting for you. It is never too late to take that leap of faith. When barriers present themselves, my advice is to get creative, push past them, and do not give up on your goal—be it traveling abroad or advancing your education or professional career in another way.
As I look forward to becoming a nurse and pursuing my personal and professional goals, I will never forget the Taiwanese people's enthusiasm to learn, nor will I lose the passion to share, teach, and travel.