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Nursing Students to Advance International Health Care Through Service-Learning Missions

By Nichole Stevens

Friday, March 13 marks the fourth year that University of Tennessee College of Nursing students and faculty will travel to Alajuela, Costa Rica for International Health Care Mission. Two faculty members, including clinical assistant professor Lynn Blackburn, and 18 students will be traveling to central Costa Rica to provide health assessments, diagnoses and more importantly, to bring needed health education into those communities.

“We often have students who’ve never been out of the country before,” said Blackburn, DNP/APRN. “So sometimes there is a culture shock, but we are not in anyway superior to people in these underserved communities, and I think they (students) do a good job at understanding that and learning from the community.”

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BSN student Katie Peterson provides comfort for an infant at a local health clinic.

UT’s International Health Care Mission works with International Service Learning health programs in order to provide respectful, sustainable health care services to developing countries.

Students will provide care and health education to nuns working at an orphanage for disabled children outside of Alajuela and work alongside Costa Rican physicians in assessing and diagnosing acute care problems, provide free medications as needed, and are working towards providing prenatal care and women’s wellness health education.

“ISL finds these communities and develops the relationship, and helps students and faculty understand who the community is that we’re going to visit and what the expectations are,” said Blackburn.

In working with ISL for in-country experience, UT benefits from the organization’s expertise and support in providing an appropriate location, and making sure local physicians are ready to guide and work with the students. UT students have been engaging with ISL through the International Health Care Mission course since 2001.

Nurses without bordersOne advantage in working with ISL is the collective impact made possible by the collaborative effort. Were UT to arrange health care missions by themselves, Blackburn says,  the UT faculty and students provided would be a once-and-done experience, with little resulting value for the partnering community.

What we (UT) do is a drop in the bucket, but lots and lots of drops are better for the community,” Blackburn said.

In partnering with ISL, faculty-led health care groups from across the nation and world are able to go into underserved communities every few months continually and keep the care of that community on-going. Collaborating with ISL also helps UT health care students and faculty partner with health care providers and communities on an international scale.

Blackburn’s first health care mission was in 2011 in Aikido, Peru. Blackburn says it is a wonderful experience for students to develop cultural competencies and perspectives of global issues.

“Many students express the same things I felt when I went the first time and that is that it tends to be a life changing experience,” said Blackburn. “It provides a perspective how very different it is in a developing country versus a developed nation like the U.S.”

Through the course, students will gain hands-on, pragmatic experience with health disparities and tropical diseases, as well as conduct a community census and assessment of health for lower socio-economic communities, which Blackburn says is primarily comprised of Nicaraguan refugees that fall outside the Costa Rican health care system.

Blackburn said the students typically come back changed and become much stronger, better health care providers. The program has influenced students in the past to continue working in international health care outreach and contribute donations to fund future international health care mission trips.

“I think having students engage in looking at communities with incredible needs brings home what we talk about in nursing,” said Blackburn. “People have much more in common than they have differences.”


International Health Care Mission was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.