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International Volunteer Experience

Discussion in 'Pre-Medical - MD' started by KUNRD07, Jul 8, 2010.

  1. KUNRD07

    KUNRD07 New Member 5+ Year Member

    Jun 21, 2006
    Out of curiosity, I was hoping people would comment on their international volunteer experiences. Has anyone volunteered in China?
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  3. 2050vlsb

    2050vlsb bleed blue and gold 2+ Year Member

    Jun 6, 2010
    I volunteered with a nonprofit organization in India last summer, and had the most incredible, amazing experiences ever. After reading comments on other threads, I feel like the general consensus on SDN is against medical mission trips/volunteering internationally (correct me if I'm wrong), but a year later, I am so glad I went and still spend a lot of time thinking about my time there.

    My situation, however, may be slightly different than yours or others. I volunteered with a US-based nonprofit that was started by college students a few years back. The organization's was still in its infancy, and so volunteers had the opportunity to give a lot of direct input and were involved in a lot of the everyday decisions. Even after we left India, I was so impressed with the work that was done that I joined the organization's board of directors .. all college students .. and have been been working with them for the past year to plan and coordinate our youth health classes, clean water initiatives and medical camp. Working at this kind of grassroots level .. i.e. finding sponsors, recruiting volunteers, coordinating with partners organizations in two different countries has definitely given me a unique perspective on our work that I imagine you may not get working with a very well-established organization, just coming in and doing what you're told.

    I can't put into words how much I value the opportunity I had (and continue to have) to work with the individuals and this organization .. in terms of the friendships I made and the perspectives I developed on the nature of healthcare and medicine in urban v. rural settings .. And while I hope this will strengthen my app and schools will see my experiences as genuinely as I do, I didn't go into the program thinking about med school. As it is, I've already been compensated through those experiences for all the effort I put in.

    Long story short .. if you're going to volunteer internationally, do it because you're interested in global health, in experiencing other cultures, in understanding how the presence or lack of medicine impacts individuals day lives .. not because its something to bolster your app or resume
  4. Web MD

    Web MD Doctor of the Internets 5+ Year Member

    Great post vlsb. I've volunteered for 3 consecutive years in Honduras, and in addition to really developing my spanish (best way to become fluent in any language is definitely by immersing yourself in the culture) I've had many similar experiences to vlsb. People who haven't done any international volunteering will steer you against it, people who have done it will say how much they loved it and how amazing it was. If you're interested in the culture and how medicine compares between US and abroad then go for it.
  5. Narmerguy

    Narmerguy Moderator Emeritus 7+ Year Member

    Jul 14, 2007
    Don't always feel inclined to go on these medically related volunteer trips. A lot of times the best work (and the most realistic) view of other cultures is when you're not at a hospital or a clinic.

    I will warn you that international volunteering doesn't have a lot of supporters here (mostly for good reason) and so the perspective you get here is not necessarily the most balanced one you could receive. People seem likely to defend these trips if they've gone on them, and to attack them if they didn't.

    Personally, I do think that a lot of international volunteer work unnecessarily uses resources to accomplish their goals. A lot of time, the $2,000 spent on a plane ticket could have done wonders if you stayed home and volunteered in your community (who badly needs help all over the US, might I add). However, don't believe for a second the people that try to convince you this is always the case. Throwing money at problems isn't necessarily the best situation all the time, but it is more times than most softy human rights people (myself included) would like to admit.
  6. Web MD

    Web MD Doctor of the Internets 5+ Year Member

    Not sure why you believe this to be true? Do you think that the group I worked with in makeshift clinics tried to put an unrealisticly positive spin on their culture and the state of Honduran medical care? Because if so, the parade of 2,500 Hondurans and their assorted maladies left me pretty underwhelmed. I'm fluent in Spanish, I could shoot the sh!t with our bus drivers, kids, pretty much everyone in the communities that we helped - it wasn't a "let's wave and shoot some fake smiles at the gringos".

    As far as helping out in underserved communities in the US, that's a valid point, but it's also not like you have to choose between going abroad for 2-4 weeks or helping out in a ghetto. I've been fortunate enough to do both, in fact it's much, much easier to help out in underserved areas in my city than to travel abroad. Pointing out that there is need in the US does nothing to dissuade me from international service when I'm trying to chip away at that need in my community the other 48 weeks/yr.

    As far as the cost of some of these international trips? You're right, it's complete bullsh!t but it's comforting to know that you get equally screwed both at home and abroad :laugh:

    *If OP is from KU then I retract all previous advice and will replace this post with a pic of a burning jayhawk when i get a chance
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2010
  7. Narmerguy

    Narmerguy Moderator Emeritus 7+ Year Member

    Jul 14, 2007
    ?? Aside from the first statement I made, my post had nothing to do with yours but was about posters on SDN in general. However, to address your points:

    My point is that, from my experience, the mentality of the people when they go to these clinics is one of people in need of aid and in need of help. You will see the worst, you will see the sick, you will see the poorest of the poor. That's not always an accurate view of the place where you are and for someone looking to explore and understand other cultures, seeking out places where the only people going to them are those who are too poor or too sick to find help elsewhere is going to often give you a skiewed view of your destination. For example, if someone visited America but kept their activity only to the free downtown clinics, this would not garner an accurate representation of America or even of only the downtown community or even just the poor downtown community.

    As for my comments about poor communities in the US, yeah you don't have to do only one or the other...but then again, you still could. Why do something wasteful and something good when you could do two good things? I'm not saying all international volunteering is a waste. I'm saying that if you're going to agree that it can be a waste, then why do some of those wasteful trips and work here when you could entirely devote your efforts here?

    Finally, about the wasted money, it's not about being screwed. You can get the best deal on a plane ticket to do what you gotta do and that's money that still would have been spent better if you kept your butt at home and wired the money to someone else. But yeah, people get ripped off on paying "service" fees for a lot of the international volunteering trips anyway.

    Keep in mind that this isn't intended as a statement in support or in criticism of these trips as a whole. I'm simply stating that a lot of them seem like a waste to me from the perspective of the people being helped. If that's your primary interest, I think a lot of people should stay home. However, almost all of these trips are valuable for the individual going on if that's why you're doing it, then I'm not one to decide what someone chooses to spend for self-enrichment. Just don't say you're doing it for them if that's the case.
  8. Web MD

    Web MD Doctor of the Internets 5+ Year Member

    My bad, I assumed your post was directed toward me since you quoted me at the very beginning. As far as skewed perspective goes, I guess it's possible, but pretty much every person I know who has had experience with these types of international trips has said their group gives them a couple days in the cities as well so you see the more affluent aspects of the country.

    As far as waste goes, you'll find it with medical aid groups right here in the US from non-profits to pharmaceutical company "donations". Regarding wasted money, you make it seem like anyone willing to volunteer abroad has no useful skills to offer and it'd be best if people just wired some cash to the groups and let them do their thing. These groups need translators, people with construction/carpentry/engineering skills, and simple man power to make the clinics run since they're unable to staff the place with salaried workers. When you compare sending over a couple hundred dollars for pills to flying over there with some docs and translating for community health promotion/disease prevention fairs and public health interventions, which do you think is the more cost effective approach?

    Lastly,these trips "seem like a waste to you from the perspective of the people being helped?". Thanks for shedding some light on their perspective for me since I obviously didn't catch their feelings of contempt at my arrogant american incompetence in between all of the thanks and praise my group received. Do I approach the trips thinking that I have nothing to learn and everything to teach? no. Do I think that I'm helping people in need? Yeah
  9. ThaliaNox

    ThaliaNox 2+ Year Member

    Oct 18, 2008
    Nobody is going to say that folks who go on international volunteering trips don't gain an experience which will likely make them think differently. People on here, when they aren't being overly cynical, more mean that the perspective gained on trips of short duration and high expense could be more efficiently gained here at home. I don't bash people who go on the trips, I just want to maintain the idea that they are not and should not become another thing that is "expected" of applicants, because that would be a hardship for less affluent students. There are other ways to experience other cultures, languages and socio-economic groups without ever leaving the US.
  10. Web MD

    Web MD Doctor of the Internets 5+ Year Member

    I definitely agree with that, they shouldn't be a requirement/highly expected for admission to med school. I personally think that even volunteering should be more of an individual choice than a requirement. If you can get clinical experience through shadowing or a paid position then more power to you. Just saying they're not complete wastes of money and time and not solely so that pre-meds can pat themselves on the back for helping the nameless poor of the world. Like I said in my original posts, one of the main things that prompted me to take my first trip was the crash course we got in medical spanish and hispanic cultural views on medicine, I found it pretty interesting. Now that I'm pretty fluent, I can get the same culture at the hispanic clinic a block away from my school
  11. AGLAIA

    AGLAIA 5+ Year Member

    Jun 18, 2009
    I joined a surgical mission to the Sacred Valley in Peru with a team from the local university hospital's ENT Facial Plastics department. I was able to assist with the pre-surgical screening day (there were greater than 120 patients seen in 8 hrs) and coordinated with the lead doc with scheduling the surgical week logistically. Over the course of the week, I did what was needed in whatever capacity I was needed. I was in pre-op, recovery, I rotated between the ORs, I assisted in the minor procedure room, and, when the fellow got his turn at the stomach flu one of our anesthesiologist brought with him, I scrubbed to assist for a palatal fistula repair on a tot.

    I wanted an opportunity to see surgical procedures and that's what I got to do. I wanted to see how the community clinic there worked, I got to see that too. One has to decide what they want to get out of their own experience and decide if it is worthwhile.

    And as the others posted, I was not cheap.
  12. vasca

    vasca En la era postpasambre 5+ Year Member

    Seeing Hordurean patients or other hispanic groups because in my experience the hispanic culture varies a lot in many ways (especially in the way they speak the language and how you have to approach them while doing medical consults) depending exactly where the person comes from.

    The Maya that live in Playa del Carmen are so different in the way they act from the locals (the village where I live has a lot of white people so to speak because I live in Tierra Caliente so calling the locals where I live indians would be a bit of an oxymoron) from my village that it's hard for me to imagine just knowing one group of people applies to all.

    I've even had to learn a ton of new spanish phrases only people from Tierra Caliente say. My favorite is disligamentation of ropes to refer to tendinitis. Nobody from Mexico City talks like that. I do think actually living in a country will give you a better perspective than a 2 week trip (especially if you're really working for the local health system and know how their bureaucracy works), but it's probably a fun experience to remind people why they are doing the path they are doing. I do agree doing such a trip should never become a requirement to enter med school.
  13. krs881

    krs881 2+ Year Member

    Dec 21, 2008
    Despite the long lines of grateful patients waiting to see the foreign doctors at a temporary clinic, this type of activity can do far more harm than good, if not to every individual patient certainly on a larger scale. Read posts 57, 59 etc of the thread below for a great discussion of the larger negative impact on health systems and communities, from people who have worked in such communities long-term:

    I have been living in a medical mission receiving country for the past 2.5 yrs (one more month until I move back to the U.S. to start MS1!) and see lots of well, non-sick people here flock to the foreign medical brigades when they come. Both american/canadian and cuban brigades, though i've heard a lot of people express preference for the north americans despite the far wider language and cultural barriers. Why? Besides getting free medicine and advice from physicians/nurses/students who probably treat them with more patience than their local underpaid and overworked providers, there is a very deep-seeded idea that everything from the U.S. is better/more advanced than in their own country. Patients everywhere are not generally equipped to judge the training or preparedness of their physicians, we rely on seeing that they have an MD, are board certified, locally licensed to practice etc. Being a gringo is like another certification in countries where that is valued by people. This is hugely detrimental to the local health system, which automatically is knocked down a notch in the eyes of patients, making their work even harder. In the U.S. foreign medical graduates must pass language exams as well as do a residency and pass boards, so they are equal on those levels. One can argue that medical preparation in the U.S. is better than some med schools in some countries, and perhaps on the whole they are better trained to work in the context in which they were trained -- the U.S. But it is not the case that U.S. doctors and health professionals are more prepared to treat infectious diseases they have never seen in places they've never been before and chronic diseases in people they will never see again and have little to no knowledge of the culture/living situation etc that effect their ability to manage that chronic disease. How can you advise someone on nutrition when you don't know what they eat or the food they have access to? There are ways to assist developing countries and communities via training, support etc to help build up their own health systems, and I see far too few medical mission groups taking any real, long-term, sustainable initiative in those areas, just leaning back on the fact that they feel good about treating so many very poor looking people in poor looking places.
  14. Janieve

    Janieve Professional Antagonist

    Oct 22, 2009
    I didn't volunteer in China (except a little introduction to the arts in a rural village for ONE DAY), but I did volunteer in Japan. I mostly worked with middle school kids, and I had a brief stint at a hospital there. For the most part, it was great - exposure to language, a look at the education the children receive, and insight into Japan's medical system - but there were drawbacks.

    As an example, I walked by the hospital every day. There was one patient who really liked me - we'd talk and joke around. He was an old man in a wheelchair, and he liked to bask in the sun while we chatted. One day, though, he didn't recognize me. I asked his nurse what was going on, and she told me that he had Alzheimer's.

    I suppose it could've happened anywhere, but it was especially difficult with the language and cultural barriers. On days he was lucid, it was great - he loved talking about far off places and asked how to say things in English. But on days he wasn't, it was terrible. He hated foreigners - look what they'd done to his country! Didn't I know what my country had done to Hiroshima? Of course I didn't - how could I, if my Japanese was so poor? I probably didn't understand a word he was saying!

    My point, I suppose, is that like all volunteering, there are ups and downs in foreign experiences. But overall, I found it worth it.
  15. dumbbell

    dumbbell 2+ Year Member

    Jul 3, 2010
    i did a month long thing in China, in one of the provincial medical centers. I did not volunteer, I did shadowing. You will be invited to do some stuff in the OR, you will round, watch them do stuff in inpatient, possibly do stuff yourself under supervision. are u fluent in Chinese? if not, it will be hard.
  16. eablackwell

    eablackwell Not Fast Enough Moderator Emeritus 5+ Year Member

    I volunteered for Kinderfreunde in Vienna while I lived there. It wasn't medicaly oriented, but I taught computer skills to underpriviledged kids from age 6-16 and helped organize a tech booth for Donauinselfest. I also digitized their summer camp photo library from the 1930s onward. That was really interesting, especially the during/after WW2 pics.

    I really enjoyed my volunteer time in Vienna and definitely put it on my application :)

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