Students interested in careers in medicine travel to Nicaragua to encourage healthy lifestyles

Thirteen students and two professors are heading to Nicaragua this month for a new summer study-abroad experience combining health care, communication and service.

Students will spend two weeks taking classes on health care and communication on campus prior to leaving for Central America on June 11. Professor of Health and Exercise Science Gary Miller will be teaching health statistics and the clinical aspects of health care, while Associate Professor of Communication Steven Giles will focus on preventative health care education and behavior modification.

“This program is a perfect fit for me,” says Stephen Castillejo, a senior health and exercise science major from State Road, N.C. “It’s an opportunity to explore health issues in a developing country. The ability to understand global health issues and to communicate good health behaviors is of utmost importance in the health and medical field, and that’s where I plan to pursue a career.”

French fries vs. fresh fruit

As part of his class, Miller’s students will look at how easy access to the fast-food drive-through affects decisions about when and what to eat. “Bicycling around Winston-Salem to explore farmer’s markets and visit health clinics will give us a basis for comparing our physical environment with that of Nicaragua’s. There are both positive and negative aspects to life in developed, industrialized areas versus rural ones. Good health isn’t just about whether a person has the willingness to walk or bike or eat healthy, but whether the environment in which he or she lives supports these kinds of activities.”

But even with the right environment, people often need to be educated about healthy choices. Though Nicaragua has abundant fresh fruits and vegetables available, Miller says they often go uneaten because of a cultural preference for meat, potatoes and fried foods. This is where communication skills become essential to improving personal health; Giles will help students think of ways to advocate for behavioral change that supports a healthier lifestyle.

Learning about the culture

There are two models for communication, says Giles. “The first is a traditional paradigm that views the researcher as the expert and uses media to spread standardized messages. It views people as being responsible for their own behavior. The second aims to position the expert as a facilitator who recognizes that people lack access to important resources and focuses on social action and improvement of social conditions as a method for improving health behavior.

“Students will engage in both strategies during our trip. For example, we’ll address issues, such as the importance of hand washing, by creating brochures and educating people about the importance of appropriate hygiene. By encouraging changes in behavior we hope to help limit preventable health problems.”

A Wake Forest staff member who lives in Nicaragua has facilitated connections between the group of travelers and local nonprofits in each area they’ll visit. In Chinandega, students will join Amigos for Christ in helping to build community gardens next to local schools — gardens that provide healthy food to Nicaraguan students and encourage good nutrition.

In San Juan Del Sur, students will staff health clinics in impoverished areas. With Nica Hope in Managua the work will center in the area around the city dump, where local entrepreneurs pay children about $2 a day to go through trash looking for things to sell. Serving at schools in the community will offer an opportunity to talk about the importance of cleaning the cuts and bruises that are a normal part of life for people who live in the area.

Most of the students headed to Nicaragua are exploring a long-term interest in mission and volunteer work in health care, and all have had at least some exposure to Spanish. “Nothing would be better than to have students choose to continue their involvement in Nicaragua after college, either through the Peace Corps, USAID, missions organizations, journalism, business or any other number of venues,” says Giles. The group will meet regularly during their time together to reflect on their experiences and discuss the importance of determining vocation and life goals.

Both Giles and Miller stress that the trip is not just about self-discovery. It’s also about bringing something of real value to Nicaraguans. “The students are collecting donations and each is contributing $100 for supplies,” says Miller. “We’ll take some money with us to buy things there and some items will be shipped from here.”

Donations include shoes for children who live inside the dump, school supplies, medicines, medical equipment and clothing. “Even though we want to give back to the community,” adds Giles, “I suspect when we return we will all feel that we have received far more than we gave.”

Those interested in contributing financial donations or supplies should contact Gary Miller

The trip to Nicaragua is a Service Learning International Trip sponsored by the Pro Humanitate Center. Students who participate receive financial awards from the Pro Humanitate Center through a grant provided by the Lilly Endowment. The Teaching and Learning Center has provided funds for students to have flip cameras for the trip, which they’ll use to record audio and video to be used in a podcast.

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