I didn’t think studying abroad was for me. Not because I didn’t want to, but a full load of premedical courses, a double major, and a Spanish minor told me it wasn’t possible. I dreamed of taking classes in South America, my region of emphasis, and improving my Spanish through true immersion. As you can see in these pictures, something changed, and it was for the best.
Figuring out how to make travel work in an affordable, convenient way required effort and searching on my part, but the personal and academic growth I gained was unbelievable. I’m talking to everyone, from STEM students to folks from rural areas, who put global education on the back burner, or who never considered it in the first place. Here’s how I made it happen and why I appreciate that decision every day.
As an International Studies major, going abroad is encouraged and can satisfy academic requirements. I would’ve loved to spend a semester in a Spanish-speaking country, but planning five months away stressed me out; I had a Biology course schedule I wanted to stick with. My friends told me about WVU Global Medical and Dental Brigades, where students volunteer at rural clinics and help out with public health projects. I didn’t make the cut my first year, as applications are competitive, but I tried again as a sophomore and was absolutely delighted with my experience. Since it was during spring break, I didn’t miss any classes. I found wonderful funding opportunities through WVU, like the Academic Enrichment Program, to make this trip cost-effective. Other scholarships are available if you do an online search or ask an advisor.
I worked as a Spanish translator, being the first person to greet patients in Honduras and record their chief complaints. Professor Brewster prepared us to take vitals properly and be sensitive towards cultural norms, as well as understand our role as outsiders in a tightly knit community. If I hadn’t spoken with locals and witnessed global health in action, I wouldn’t have developed my current passion for community health. This desire, supported by conversations and events from my time abroad, guides me to new opportunities and forces me to think about my future.
Our group of about 50 students kept me together. We laughed as we worked on sanitary outhouses in ninety degree heat, we reminded each other to stay hydrated during long clinics, and we chilled by the pool every evening for a much needed reflection.
I practiced my food photography with the delicious breakfast made by Honduran chefs at the compound where we stayed. At first, I was nervous to sit with local staff and doctors, but after a few days, I shared meals with them and discussed dietary differences. I learned that food is culture. It’s tightly linked to social, historical, and economic forces that build relationships and affect health. You’d never guess by my healthy plate, but Honduras shares some lifestyle diseases that are rampant in Appalachia like diabetes and hypertension.
Returning to the US, I got the travel bug and couldn't wait to go abroad again. However, I found myself on a different type of adventure, getting closer to the people of my state. “Abroad” took a new meaning, as I found myself experiencing culture shock just three hours from home (Morgantown). I traveled to Williamson, a small coal town in southern West Virginia on two occasions with a program led by Professor Beth Nardella. It was a service-learning trip, which I highly recommend because you have access to community leaders, nonprofits, and regular citizens that can tell an authentic story of their struggles.
We climbed to “Death Rock,” pictured above, with a community member named Alexis who motivated the town to get active. We volunteered at a 5K race that he sponsored and learned about his projects such as an after-lunch walking competition and running club for all ages.
I did more than hear about his healthy ideas; Alexis took us on a hike that locals love to a point where you can see both West Virginia and Kentucky in one gorgeous vista. I signed up for the first trip on a whim, as I wanted to do service and learn about health issues in my region. I left with appreciation for what can be gained at home: an immersive experience, new connections, and deeper engagement than I could’ve achieved on my own.
Interested in rural health, I traveled to Welch WV with The Rural Undergraduate Shadowing in Healthcare Program. I took the picture (above) on a chilly January day in the downtown area that I explored on a day off from clinic. Although the population is declining, most people I encountered were lively and enthusiastic to welcome me, show me their store, and tell me a story or two. Fun fact: this is where Steve Harvey was born!
This infamous coal town, featured in The Glass Castle, is similar to “exotic” South America or “hillbilly” West Virginia, a one-dimensional stereotype of poverty and illness in Appalachia. Being there chipped away those preconceptions bit by bit. I met a diverse group of people with individual stories that broke incorrect assumptions I held. Much like traveling to Honduras, I found myself rethinking my view of the world and myself in it. Studying abroad doesn’t necessitate a ten-hour flight or semester-long stay. It can be done by the busiest of students on a budget that fits their means. The important thing is that you do something that challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, just temporarily, and pushes you to find your calling.
A hundred pages isn’t enough to describe everything I did, but one word summarizes what I kept: inspiration. For all those essays that ask, “Why do you want this job, internship, or scholarship?” I have a tangible experience or relationship that pushed me in that direction. I’m inspired to pursue a career in preventative medicine, because I saw changemakers in their element and wanted to be like them. I’m inspired by the people I met, from store owners to peers who accompanied me on these trips. Lastly, I’m inspired by what there is left to accomplish. Signing up for something new, unknown, or challenging is scary, but it is worth it, and more.