Drexel Blog: Two Worlds, One Life-Changing Experience: Online Nursing Students Go to Work on the Ground in Paraguay

Susan Aldridge Appointed Senior Vice President of Drexel University for Online Learning
When Kevin Hannon and Liz Clarke enrolled in the RN-BSN program at Drexel University Online, they never expected to end up in Paraguay for what both of them call “a life-changing experience.” But thanks to a unique partnership among Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, SouthEast Lancaster Health Services, and Outreach Paraguay, these two seasoned nurses were able to put their knowledge to work on the ground more than 4,500 miles away from home.

Overseas clinical experience has become increasingly important for healthcare professionals, particularly given the critical need for culturally competent patient care, practice models, and delivery systems. It’s also a great way to broaden minds and expand horizons on the road to deeper learning and self-discovery. Yet while there are a growing number of hands-on, study abroad options for campus-based nursing students, they are more or less non-existent for those learning online.

So when Liz and Kevin discovered that they could meet a 40-hour clinical requirement by taking part in an international healthcare project, they jumped at the opportunity. And after completing foundational coursework in community nursing, they boarded a plane for Paraguay, along with six of their online classmates, two Drexel University faculty members (Eileen Sosa, MSN, CRNP, and Dr. Jeannine Uribe), and more than 700 pounds of donated clothing and household items.

Having both spent a couple of years in Paraguay as Peace Corps volunteers, professors Sosa and Uribe are not only familiar with the country, they are also well-connected there. In fact, professor Sosa and her husband Milner (a native Paraguayan) founded Outreach Paraguay, as a way to encourage cross-cultural healthcare exchanges. Consequently, they have built a network of friends and family members, who made it their mission to immerse our “student practitioners” in the country’s many rich traditions, as they traveled over 1,000 miles, providing health education to rural school children and making home visits to their families.

For Kevin and Liz, stepping out of their comfort zone meant stepping into a radically different reality, where poverty is pervasive and access to essential services, limited at best. As such, it was a dramatic reminder of the many medical resources we Americans take for granted – like state-of-the-art medical equipment and an abundance of healthcare professionals. Kevin recalls that in one healthcare facility EKGs were performed once a week, and only if there was someone there to read them. Likewise, Liz was astonished to learn that while Paraguay is home to the world’s second-largest hydroelectric turbine, it sells most of what it produces to other countries – which is why the teaching hospital in Asuncion (the country’s capital) often doesn’t have the necessary juice to operate its CT scanner.

On the other hand, they were both impressed with the “Paraguayan spirit,” even in the face of persistent poverty and inadequate healthcare. According to Liz, the people they met and worked with were incredibly welcoming and grateful for the support (as well as the clothing and household items). She also remembers the many mothers she encountered, whose only wish was for their children to have a real shot at a decent education. Kevin was equally moved by the appreciation and the hospitality, citing the memorable evenings spent breaking bread with his newfound Paraguayan friends.

Of course, experiences such as this one often have an extraordinary impact on our students, both professionally and personally, by cultivating new and more expansive ways of thinking and doing. For Kevin, the trip was a lesson in healthcare disparity, which has led him to look more closely at what the United States can and should be doing to share its ample medical knowledge and resources. As a result, he is now a big believer in the power of hands-on, trans-cultural nursing study to open hearts and change minds – which is why he encourages others to embrace the opportunity.

In a similar vein, Liz came away with an even greater sense of responsibility as a nurse, which will help ground her career choices going forward. An ardent patient advocate, she is deeply committed to educating nurses around the environmental, social justice, and ethical issues that threaten public health, having created Nurse4Earth (www.nurse4earth.com), an organization dedicated to promoting community awareness and civic engagement. Needless to say, her experience in Paraguay has only strengthened her resolve to (as Ghandi once said) “be the change” she hopes to see in this ever-evolving global village of ours.

Kevin Hannon has worked in the healthcare field for the past 15 years, and is currently a psychiatric nurse in central New Jersey. Liz Clarke spent 15 years as an emergency room nurse, and is now a staff nurse at Will’s Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.