A Spring Break Abroad Exploring Diversity & Global Health

UC students in Costa Rica with kids

Written by Susan Helmick, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate College

At the University of Cincinnati (UC), interprofessional education isn't just a concept; it's intricately woven into the institution's core values. This past spring break, graduate students from the College of Allied Health Sciences (CAHS) embarked on a transformative experiential service-learning journey in Costa Rica. Led by Xan Boone, Professor in the School of Social Work, and supported through a well-developed partnership between CAHS and Viva Nicaragua Abroad (VN Abroad), a non-governmental organization (NGO) committed to cross-cultural engagement and service learning, graduate and undergraduate CAHS students were offered an unparalleled opportunity to cultivate cross-cultural empathy while tackling a myriad of healthcare challenges. This year, Professor Boone sought to expand the interprofessional aspect of the program with the inclusion of College of Nursing (CoN) students from the Accelerated Master of Science in Nursing program and nursing faculty, Robyn Stamm, Associate Professor of Clinical Nursing, marking a significant milestone in the program's evolution.

Collaborating with VN Abroad, students engaged directly with immigrant, asylum-seeking, and refugee populations, gaining invaluable insights into global health disparities and the challenges of human displacement. Founded on principles of social justice and global citizenship, VN Abroad coordinates cross-cultural learning programs that support marginalized populations in the northern region of Costa Rica. 

This immersive experience offered students hands-on learning, allowing them to work alongside local communities to advance socio-economic integration, community development, and foster cultural humility and awareness. Participants collaborated with community members on a range of projects, from facilitating activities for women's groups and children to organizing health screenings and education in CPR and wound care.

Additionally, the program shed light on the Nicaraguan refugee issue in Costa Rica, where more than 200,000 Nicaraguans have sought refuge since 2018. Despite efforts by governments and organizations, many refugees still struggle to access basic services and legal protection. This experience underscored the need for comprehensive resources to support those forced to navigate dire circumstances. Olivia Evans, a master of science in nursing student, shares, "Witnessing firsthand the challenges faced by these families was truly heart-wrenching, yet being able to offer help in even the smallest capacity filled me with profound humility."

Using open dialogue, collaborative problem-solving, and reflection, students developed a deep appreciation for the challenges and opportunities inherent in healthcare provision within cultural contexts, laying the groundwork for future advocacy. For Breanna Salyer, a master of social work student, the experience underscores the importance of cultural competence in her field. "As a social worker, it's very important for me to get a better understanding of other cultures and to continually build my cultural humility. This study abroad experience to Costa Rica provided me with an opportunity to grow," she noted.

Through partnerships like the one between CAHS and VN Abroad, UC continues to lead the way in preparing healthcare professionals to navigate the complexities of an increasingly interconnected world. Future master of social work graduate Janette Burnsworth, echoing the sentiments of her peers, stated, "The true beauty of Costa Rica is the people and the abundant gratitude they hold within their hearts."

Amaya Siddiqi, doctor of physical therapy student, aptly encapsulates the impact of this experience: "My time in Costa Rica was incredibly meaningful to me both as a future healthcare professional and a human being. The week also gave me ample opportunities to learn about cultural sensitivity and advocacy for migrants, which is something I intend to take back to the United States with me and use in my future practice every day. Thank you to UC and VN Abroad!"