James Madison University

Nursing Students Study Abroad in Spain

By: Lori News
Posted: October 27, 2014

As a nursing major with a medical Spanish minor, this study abroad trip was a dream come true for JMU student Rachel Raykov. “I had been stalking this trip on the [Office of International Programs website] since I was a freshman.”

For three and a half weeks, 11 students, consisting of mostly nursing students, studied abroad in the beautiful northeastern coastal city of Tarragona, Spain.

PHOTO: JMU students in Spain

About five years ago a few nursing professors from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV), a university in Tarragona, visited JMU’s nursing department with hopes of starting a study abroad program. Nursing professor Dr. Erika Metzler Sawin volunteered to go on an exploratory trip in the fall of 2012 with Department Head, Dr. Julie Sanford.

As a result, the May 2014 trip was led by Dr. Sawin and the Director of Multicultural Service and International Student Services at Eastern Mennonite University, Susannah Lepley.

Because Lepley was the former Director of Community Health Interpreter Services at JMU, Sawin felt that her strong language ability would aid them in navigating and effectively communicating through the language barrier.

Tarragona is a part of a larger region in Spain called Catalonia, where they speak Catalan. According to Sawin, Catalonia is currently trying to secede from Spain to become its own country. Since people in Catalonia speak both Spanish and Catalan, one of the prerequisites for the trip was a basic level of Spanish language understanding.

“There were some instances where my students were actually the people who interpreted in a health care setting for English-speaking tourists, because there were no other health care professionals who were actually English speakers,” Sawin said. “I think that really affirmed their language abilities.”

While Sawin and Lepley stayed in an apartment in the city, the students paired up and lived with a host family.

Ashley Purtell, a junior nursing major, described her time with her host family to be an amazing immersion experience. “We had dinner with our family every night and were able to hear everything from their advice on how to successfully navigate the city to their opinions on the Spanish health care system. It definitely would not have been the same experience if we did not stay with host families.”

The trip consisted of three phases split up between classes, working in a clinical setting and cultural exploration. The first week of classes consisted of Spanish lessons and a comprehensive study of the health care systems in Catalonia compared to Spain’s department of health.

“With Spain’s economy the way it is and Catalonia trying to secede, there are actually some pretty big differences between the country as a whole and that particular part of Spain. Because it’s a largely universal heath care system, it’s different from our system,” Sawin explained.

As part of the course, Sawin lectured about the differences of Spain and the United States’ health care systems.

As one of the top ten best health care systems in the world, Spain has a universal system where generally everyone is covered when seeking treatment. One major difference is that Spain’s main focus is on preventative care.

The second phase of the trip focused on working in multiple hospitals checking patient’s vital signs and taking part in other non-invasive tasks. Sawin explained that the students were not able to do anything invasive because of the restrictions enforced by the faculty at URV. However, Sawin said “it really didn’t matter because the point was for the trip to be a cross-cultural experience, learning about the different health care systems, focusing on language and seeing the system from a first-hand perspective.”

The third phase consisted of cultural explorations including a trip to Barcelona visiting museums and observing cultural community events.

While in Catalonia, Purtell described her clinical experience as her most memorable highlight of the trip. “It was great to be able to compare Spanish health care with that of the U.S. and it really was my first glimpse into medical surgical nursing,” she said. 

Sawin hopes to offer this study abroad trip in May and June of 2016 and host the trip every other year after if it continues to be a great success. She also mentioned that nursing departments at JMU and URV are working together to develop an opportunity to have Spanish nursing students come to JMU in the future.

When asked what she would tell students about studying abroad in Spain, Purtell said “For those students interested in this trip that are nervous about your Spanish skills, do not let that stop you from pursuing it. I had the time of my life and met some incredible people and I can honestly say this has been the highlight of my JMU experience.” 

Raykov also agreed that her favorite part of the trip was the clinical experience and opportunities that followed. She said, “Don’t be afraid to explore the world. One hundred or one thousand miles away from your home there will be kind people, new things to do, and new experiences to have.”