While working in East Asia, nursing students develop a commitment to global health.

By:    Date: 09-27-2016

Article by Melody Schmidt and Olivia Grider

View this article as a pdf.


Nursing students at The University of Alabama have the opportunity to travel around the world to provide health care in impoverished communities and learn about cultures different from their own. Students enroll in NUR 317/517, a study-abroad course that is held each summer with destinations changing annually. In 2015, two groups of students visited Cambodia and China.

Prior to their trips, students read about the cultures and health problems of communities they will be serving and learn to overcome cultural and language barriers in order to treat a wide range of patients. A central part of the service-learning experience is to make associations between poverty and lack of resources in communities and the health status of their members.

“Although I was aware that there are health-care-related differences across cultures, I wasn’t ready for what I was going to see when we got there,” says Jordan Lowell, a senior nursing student who travelled to China. “Patients did not have appropriate access to care, which turned conditions that are usually easy to treat into conditions that really decreased their quality of life. Many of the patients that we came into contact with had not seen a health-care provider in years.”


Dr. Olivia May, an assistant clinical professor of nursing who accompanied students on the China trip, provides care to an infant. ABOVE: UA student Asia Dawson conducts a health screening in Cambodia.

A lack of clean drinking water and a diet lacking in vitamins are common factors that lead to health problems in many communities students visit, says Dr. Leigh Booth, assistant professor of nursing and instructor of NUR 517.

Since 2012, more than 100 University of Alabama nursing students have provided health care and education as part of 12 service-learning trips to countries including Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Cost Rica, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Tanzania.

Sixteen students from the Capstone College of Nursing, two UA faculty members and 11 pharmacy students from Samford University treated hundreds of people in rural Cambodian communities during 10 days in 2015. Students set up medical clinics in community buildings with separate areas for assessment, eye health, dental needs, medicine and vitamin dispersal, counseling and more. They addressed common rural health problems such as back pain, dental problems, poor eyesight, parasites and high blood pressure due to high-sodium diets.

“They would have an assessment done and we would find out their biggest need at that time, whether they needed eyeglasses and, if we had a dentist available, we would let them see the dentist,” Booth says.

In addition to specific treatments, all patients at the clinics received vitamins for themselves and their children to make up for diet deficiencies. Because clinic departments were connected, nursing and pharmacy students learned to work together interprofessionally, pairing proper medicines with required clinical care.

Booth says this was an important learning opportunity for the students because it’s something they will have to do in their careers.

Alyssa Rajkowski, a senior majoring in nursing, says she also learned by forming bonds with patients and seeing how significantly access to health care can change lives.

“A little girl named Somnang really impacted me,” Rajkowski says. “She had major cardiac problems that would require surgery to fix, and her family did not have that kind of money. We worked very hard to collect and raise money for her to go to the hospital in Siem Reap. She was able to go because of us and will now live a healthy life, and my heart couldn’t be happier.”

Nine Capstone College of Nursing students and two faculty members spent 11 days in China, setting up medical clinics in the basements of factories and office buildings. Each clinic included a triage station, a center with a doctor or nurse practitioner, a medical-education area, a pharmacy and an eye-health station. UA students rotated through all the stations and were accompanied by translators who are Chinese college students majoring in English.

Alison Griffitt, a senior majoring in nursing, says working conditions are difficult for many people students treated. “These factories had no air conditioning and were hot, humid and typically cramped,” Griffitt says. “Some of the factories were literal sweat shops.”

At the triage station, students took patients’ medical histories, asked their reasons for visiting and checked blood pressure, pulse, respirations and temperature, says Keema Boland, a senior majoring in nursing. “Medical education was provided on a daily basis,” she continues. “We had teaching material and explained ways to prevent high blood pressure and certain infections and how to maintain an overall healthy body.”

As part of the course, students reflected on their service experiences verbally and in writing, as a group and individually.

“Academically, each of the nursing students was required to answer daily questions as well as journal every day,” Griffitt says. “This was the best homework assignment I’ve ever been given because it allowed me to write down memories and details so that I won’t forget them.”

Dr. Olivia May, an assistant clinical professor of nursing who accompanied students on the trip, says they gained valuable knowledge that will impact not only their careers, but their lives in general. “It is an incredible experience to help make such a direct and immediate impact on someone’s life,” she says.

Students say they learned the importance of holistic care, which includes mental health and wellness in addition to physical health.

“It was indeed a blessing to be granted this opportunity of providing medical care to such wonderful and contented people,” Boland says. “My perspective on health care around the world has become more meaningful, and I fully understand what holistic care is all about.”
Lowell says working in China reshaped her career plans.

“While I had originally planned on working in Mobile, Ala., I’m now looking into pursuing the life of a medical missionary,” Lowell says. “Though I’ll always remember the people I met, what truly stands out is what I learned about health care access across cultures and how I’m going to use that knowledge in my future career.”

During Summer 2016, NUR 317/517 travelled to East Asia, Ethiopia and Bolivia.

For more information about the course, contact Dr. Leigh Booth at 205-348-3074 or labooth10@ua.edu, Dr. Olivia May at 205-348-3374 or Stephanie Ragland at 205-348-7430 or slragland@ua.edu.