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Online Learning Mixes with World Travel: RN to BSN Student Reflects on Her International Service Learning Experience in Kenya

When Maureen Fox boarded a plane for Kenya earlier this year, she didn’t know what to expect. “I’m a bit overwhelmed by what awaits,” she admitted to us.  “I don’t really know what to expect.  I do know that I will keep my mind, eyes and ears open and I will take every opportunity that I can to learn everything possible.”

A student in Linfield College’s RN to BSN online degree completion program for adults, Maureen had wanted to provide healthcare in an international setting for years, but doing so seemed unattainable. Having started her family young and becoming a Registered Nurse while managing her family, Maureen didn’t have the flexibility or resources for a long time. Finally, Linfield’s new international Service Learning Experience made a nursing trip to another part of the world a realistic – even reasonable – plan.

Maureen and colleagues outside a Kenyan hospital

Maureen and colleagues outside a Kenyan hospital

This senior service learning experience let Maureen accomplish her personal goal of contributing her nursing skills internationally while simultaneously meeting the academic requirements of the RN to BSN degree program. This two-week immersion occurs in the final course, Integrated Experiential Learning, in Linfield’s online RN to BSN degree. The Service Learning experience is an approach to nursing leadership in the local community that explores non-traditional sites and diverse experiences that provide valuable preparation for health promotion, cultural awareness, and leadership in our global community.

Linfield students may complete their Service Learning Experience internationally in partnership with one of the organizations where Linfield has established a relationship in Kenya, Costa Rica or Nepal, or in the local community where the RN is licensed to practice. Maureen picked Open Arms International, the community healthcare agency, school and orphanage in Eldoret, Kenya, for her service learning experience.

In Kenya, Maureen focused her schedule on talking to as many people as possible in order to gain an understanding of the healthcare infrastructure.   Her approach made space for spontaneous healthcare opportunities. For example, Maureen talked with the teachers at the Open Arms Academy, and at their invitation taught sex education classes, separately, to adolescent girls and boys. Later in the trip, she visited the Biribiriet rural community clinic where she spent a day job shadowing a health provider and met with a group of community health workers.

Maureen says one of her most life-changing experiences was leading a health class for a group of mothers from the slums of Kambiteso. In the class, she taught the women strategies for preventing rape, as well as healthcare guidance on how to deal with the consequences of rape. “People expressed their appreciation for my willingness to speak realistically about the issues they faced,” Maureen says.

The two weeks in Kenya passed quickly and Maureen experienced profound changes on multiple levels. “My whole life has been changed and my future course has been altered because of my experiences in Kenya,” she says.

The service learning increased Maureen’s self-knowledge and clarified her professional goals as a nurse. “I have learned more about myself and my abilities in the last two weeks than I ever thought possible,” Maureen says.

One of the most power things that Maureen learned about herself was that she had an “egotistical, elitist, American perspective.” A wonderful experience was when she experienced surface differences falling away when she and her Kenyan colleagues discussed how they meet the healthcare and education needs of the local community. Despite having been educated and working on different continents, Maureen  and her Kenyan colleagues naturally conversed in the same manner she’d speak to professionals in the U.S. “I guess I thought I would be smarter or know more about the world, but I was only smarter and more knowledgeable about America,” she reflects. We often hear from students who study abroad, such as in our Global Health Certificate program International Business degree and nursing degree program, that the experience changes their perspective.

Maureen was moved by the similarities between herself and her new Kenyan friends. During a light moment, she bonded with a Kenyan colleague over their similar pragmatic approach to housekeeping in the midst of busy family life. Maureen also experienced common ground with a teacher and mother of a child with special needs. “At one point, I held her hand in mine and, with tears in our eyes, we both shared a moment only moms of special needs kids could share.”

Maureen urges other RN to BSN students considering traveling internationally, “Nothing replaces the real deal. Don’t wait, do it!” Back in the U.S., Maureen encourages nurses to carry out service learning if they can’t travel internationally. She says, “As health care professionals, we all have a responsibility to know what’s happening in our local, national and global communities.”

Reflecting upon her time in Kenya, Maureen says, “I’d like to say that I met the needs of the local community, that I offered some kind of wisdom and inspiration, but at times I felt like I was adding no more than a drop to a very thirsty bucket.”

At the same time, she identifies with a parable retold in Kristof and WuDunn’s book Half the Sky:

Linfield-ADP-RN-BSN-Kenya-Colleagues

“A man goes out on the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have washed up in the tide.  A little boy is walking alone, picking them up and throwing them back into the water.  “What are you doing, son?” the man asks.  “You see how many starfish there are?  You’ll never make a difference.”  The boy paused thoughtfully, and picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean.  ‘It sure made a difference to that one,’  he said.”

After her service learning experience in Kenya, Maureen is determined to contribute her skills to bring change in the world. “I’m not sure what shape it will take, how big the impact will be, when it will happen, but it will happen.”

Reference:  Kristof, N.D. & WuDunn, S. (2009). Half the Sky. New York, NY: Random House.