Studying abroad as a Pre-Med: Why I decided to study abroad

After 3 and half years at UC Berkeley, I can attest that college, particularly the pre-med route, can be rather intense. As students, we are all routinely performing a day-to-day balancing act, juggling a wide variety of activities; for pre-meds this includes volunteering at a nearby health clinic, assisting in an advanced research lab, and studying for upcoming midterms for classes that are notoriously known as “weeder classes,” on top of maintaining a healthy social life. Priorities differ from individual to individual, but we like to keep busy. It’s hard to resist soaking in the abundant learning opportunities that surround us at the #1 public university in the world.

I became preoccupied with a stimulating life in Berkeley, and despite having always wanted the immersive academic experience, going overseas took a backseat, and studying abroad became more of a romanticized luxury rather than a necessity to my college experience. This ambition-induced tunnel vision is common among my peers and seems to reinforce a general consensus–or rather, a myth–that studying abroad is not an option for pre-meds.

For the 2014 calendar year, I was the clinic coordinator for my organization, Hep B Project. Twice a week, we set up camp at a larger free clinic to provide free hepatitis B education, screening, and vaccinations. This humbling experience–in particular, the patient interaction in the clinical setting–had always helped me take a step back from my textbooks and helped place my goals into perspective. I had the opportunity to interact with patients from all walks of life as we serve low-income, uninsured patients, that generally spoke little English.

However, I struggled to communicate properly with many of our patients. The community we served was primarily Asian and Pacific Islander patients, a population experiencing a serious health disparity regarding hepatitis B, and Latino patients, a population largely present at our partner health clinic. Although my co-coordinator spoke fluent Mandarin and I spoke Vietnamese and some Spanish (does high school Spanish even count?), we faced many cultural and language barriers almost every week. For example, I could barely explain the importance of getting screened for hepatitis B to our Latino patients, and not at all to any of our Mongolian patients. The barriers we faced posed a huge threat in efficiently providing health care, and it was frustrating.

I came to realize that my life inside my college bubble is not in the least an accurate representation of the real world, and while I love the unique UC Berkeley community, it was not a reflection of the general population whom I hope to one day work with and serve. Healthcare providers need to be non-judgmental and open-minded to effectively and objectively treat their patients, yet it was hard for me to even relate to the patients that spoke a different language, nevermind the fact that they were born in a different decade, a different continent, and a different culture. I knew little about the rest of the world.

At the end of my term as clinic coordinator, I decided to study abroad the following summer in Madrid, Spain and participate in a Language and Culture program in hopes of improving my Spanish language skills and open my mind by completely immersing myself in an unfamiliar culture. It was an incredible summer.

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