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International study in Cuba produces life-changing experiencesStudy abroad can be an enriching and enlightening part of any educational experience. Nursing students, in particular, can gain valuable insight into another country’s health care system, along with the opportunity to compare and contrast it with their own.

“International experiences help students see that there are issues with health care on a global level,” said Rae Brown, associate dean for undergraduate education. “It gives them a broader perspective.”

In March, Brown accompanied 13 B.S.N. students at Behrend and University Park campuses on a spring break trip to Havana, Cuba. It was the second year for the embedded program organized through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and led by Penn State Nursing faculty.

“An embedded program is a course taken at a Penn State campus that includes an international, credit-bearing travel component,” Brown said. “Each student received 1 credit for international study as well as clinical time for courses they were registered for.”

The eight-day experience explores community and family health nursing in Cuba through observational clinical experiences, cultural activities, and classes. Students are immersed in Cuban culture and the health care system by visiting health care facilities and attending lectures on topics such as health promotion and challenges in local health care delivery.

Carolynn Masters, an associate teaching professor at Behrend, joined Brown in accompanying the students on this year’s trip. In addition to receiving credit for a special-topics international study course, Masters said, students gained an eye-opening perspective on another country’s health care system.

“Cuba is recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the top countries in preventative health, thanks largely to their commitment to health care access for all,” Masters said. “In Cuba, health care is free and the emphasis is on health promotion and disease prevention.”

The Cuban government operates a national health system, assuming fiscal and administrative responsibility for the health care of its citizens. No private hospitals or clinics exist, as all health services are run by the government.

“All health care is provided at no cost, but there’s not much choice,” said Brown. She explained that the system is composed of multiple tiers, which determine not only the level of care a patient receives but also where he or she may be treated. “It is very different from the United States, where we relish our choices.”

In October, eight Penn State Altoona students traveled to Cuba for a similar experience coordinated through CIEE by faculty member Delores McCreary. Nichole Miller, a 2018 graduate who took the trip as a senior, described the group’s visit to a neighborhood clinic.

“We came bearing personal hygiene and first aid supplies that we donated to the clinic,” Miller said. “We met a local doctor who demonstrated moxibustion (a form of heat therapy in which dried plant materials are burned on or near the skin surface to stimulate circulation)and allowed us to practice it. We also attended a lecture on naturally found plants and herbs and their medical uses.”

The Altoona students learned about Cuban mental health care by visiting La Castellana, a mental health center. They also spent time at a hospital, maternal health center, and home for the elderly.

Both the Altoona and University Park groups visited the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM), a state-of-the-art international medical school with students from more than 110 countries. Tuition is free, with the condition that graduates commit to practicing in underserved areas. “Their philosophy is based on improving health care throughout the world,” Brown said.

Although most of the 10,000+ students come from Latin America and the Caribbean, ELAM also accepts U.S. students. The Altoona group met a student from Texas, said Miller, who gave them a campus tour and shared his experiences of living and studying medicine in Cuba.

In addition to health care facilities, students visited art galleries, museums, schools, and other cultural and historic institutions to get a taste of Cuban culture.

“In Cuba, the arts—especially music and dance—play a big part in cultural expression,” Brown said.

Food and nutrition also figure prominently in Cuban life. A highlight of the trip was a cooking lesson at a local restaurant, where the group made mojitos and a traditional chicken and seafood dish. “The best part was getting to eat what we learned to cook!” said Brown.

Although the tightly regimented itinerary allowed for little down time, the Altoona group got to enjoy an afternoon at the beach on their last day. Miller is grateful to the trip’s organizers and the faculty members who accompanied the students, Marcia Satryan and Cindy Bowman.

“I will never forget the experiences and the wonderful people I met,” said Miller.

Masters agreed that the trip was life changing for students and faculty alike.

“As nurses, we tend to focus on the clinical and technological aspects of our jobs,” she said. “It’s important to understand the human element as well. Engaging with the Cuban people and their lives gave students a glimpse of what they will encounter as practicing nurses.”