By Janie Thomas
Ambition can motivate people to push the limits of their comfort zone. As a student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), Taryn Cutrona was busy studying the interplay of food, nutrition and exercise effects on the human body, but wanted more out of her experience at Virginia Tech than what she could learn in the classroom. Her desire to go on a spring break trip to Costa Rica as a sophomore in college proved to be the most life-directing decision she has ever made.
Cutrona returned to Latin America as part of a semester-long, study abroad program in Argentina during her junior year where she became fluent in Spanish. After graduation, she traveled to Concepción, Honduras, where she lived for four months as an employee of Shoulder to Shoulder. Concepcion is a small rural village in Honduras, with only two medical clinics to care for its 580 residents.
Rural Honduras is not an easy place to live or to transport patients in emergency situations. The two clinics in the municipality are eighteen miles apart, accessible only by rocky, uneven terrain.
Her job included welcoming the brigades, medical personnel and students from the United States into the community to ensure good communication and direction among the groups. This often included translating for the medical staff, which gave Cutrona intimate access to patients and their needs, teaching her the joys and complexities of working as an overseas medical provider. She immediately fell in love with the role nurses play in healthcare and, as a result, decided to return to the U.S. to begin the Accelerated BSN program at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).
Her prolonged time in Latin America provided her with unique insight into nursing and the importance of cultural competency when working with people from diverse backgrounds.
“People who have worked in hospitals know all of the technical details, but that is a small part of the entire picture,” said Cutrona. “The cultural aspect is something that you can’t learn from reading a book. You have to experience it. It brings a different perspective to your role as a healthcare provider.”
Cutrona encourages students to go abroad to round out the clinical education experience.
“You have to travel,” Cutrona urged. “It’s not the same experience if you just take a global disease class or learn about infectious disease. Immerse yourself in a culture to understand how people live. Unless you are eating their food, hanging out with the locals, walking the streets or going to community events, you won’t get the most out of your experience.”
Cutrona stresses that while there is a benefit of traveling to a country with prior language proficiency, students should not let that prevent them from traveling as translators are often on-site at local clinics. Making an effort to learn even a few phrases in the local language is a great way to build trust and respect with your hosts, and practicing casual conversations in Spanish can lead to deep, lasting friendships.
While time is a limited resource for students, Cutrona encourages anyone to travel for as long as they are able. The longer one can be immersed in a different culture from her own, the more he or she can learn and give. You can also learn more by becoming active in the host’s culture as soon as the trip begins.
Cutrona is interested in exploring more of the world through mission trips offered through MUSC’s educational programs. Inspired by her understanding of the basic health problems in Honduras, she says it would be great to go somewhere else to see the differences between countries
Even though her program just began in January, she has already sought out ways of interacting with local Spanish speakers to use her skills and passion for Latin America for the benefit of others. To accomplish this, she is translating at the CARES clinic one afternoon every week.
“People come into the CARES clinic who can’t speak English. Having someone who speaks the same language will be really helpful,” said Cutrona. “By working at the CARES clinic, she is able to slip back into the role that she thrived in during her time in Honduras. In Cutrona’s words, “It kind of feels like what I did in Honduras, which is comforting because I loved what I did there so much.”
She is also interested in becoming involved in some of the multiple clubs and groups at MUSC for students interested in other cultures. Not surprisingly, she is especially interested in the Spanish and Latin American clubs since she has spent so much time in that culture.
“While you wait to go on an international trip, be exposed to other cultures that are right here in Charleston,” said Cutrona. “Practice your Spanish. Open your mind to what you will see when you travel. You can volunteer to learn about other cultures before you travel. Global opportunities are all around us. We just have to take advantage of them.”
Janie Thomas is an intern in MUSC Center for Global Health