BYU nursing students had the opportunity to help out in a Ukrainian refugee camp and meet with sexual assault victim advocates during their unique immersive study abroad experience in Poland and Finland.
The 13 students and their two faculty advisors visited hospitals, tracked nurses, worked with other nursing students and enjoyed cultural highlights like cooked reindeer and saunas in Finland. In Poland, the group visited a shelter for victims of sexual violence, the Auschwitz concentration camp and a refugee camp where nearly 3,000 displaced Ukrainians lived.
The location of the refugee camp is kept secret, to protect vulnerable refugees from financial scams and human trafficking. Through connections with local humanitarian volunteers, the students had a unique opportunity to volunteer at the camp for a day.
Natalie Wilson, a senior in the nursing program, served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ukraine and Moldova from 2018 to 2019 speaking Russian. Her language skills and cultural knowledge were invaluable in the refugee camp, where foreign doctors and nurses struggled to help patients due to communication and cultural barriers.
Wilson said she expected her group’s nursing skills — especially those of their teachers — to be put to good use in the refugee camp. When they arrived, she realized that the camp volunteers didn’t need more medical professionals, but rather help with communication.
“We got there and all they needed was a translator,” she said. “It’s the only thing they needed because the language barrier is such a difficult thing for everyone.”
Besides the language barrier, Wilson said he saw how cultural differences made it difficult for refugees to trust and work with camp doctors.
“Knowing a little about people makes a big difference when it comes to providing care,” Wilson said.
Without a translator, Wilson said doctors and nurses would typically use Google Translate to speak with patients. She said even though she didn’t have the medical vocabulary that doctors need, asking simple questions such as “Hi, how are you?” and “How can I help you?” helped to foster bonds and trust.
“None of the people helping them speak their language,” she said, so even having someone who can say a simple greeting is “so meaningful to them and it helps build that connection.”
Wilson said these connections are an important basis for medical treatment.
“It’s not what you imagine, as it’s not just about fixing the arms,” she said. “It’s not about physically fixing people, it’s just about making them smile.”
Wilson said the struggle between doctors and their patients brought back memories of being rejected as a missionary. She said that while it was difficult when people refused her gospel message, it was more difficult when she offered potentially life-saving medical care.
“When it’s a matter of life or death, it was really difficult,” she said, remembering the stubbornness of her Ukrainian friends. “I think it gave me a new perspective on the people I taught.”
Coming back to work with Ukrainians in a very different situation was a moving experience for Wilson.
Wilson said she felt “at home” in Poland, so geographically and culturally close to her mission. Coming back under such intense circumstances was difficult.
“I cried at the end,” she said. “It was a really tough experience but I’m glad I was able to do it.”
Caring beyond borders
The students spent three weeks in Finland and one week in Poland. The war in Ukraine, COVID-19 and a nurses’ strike in Finland made their trip different from previous years, with less clinical practice and a stronger focus on global health and cross-cultural skills.
Tiana Halterman, a senior on the program, said the culturally immersive experience encouraged her to be more open to new ideas and perspectives.
While working with Finnish nursing students in a mock exam, Halterman said she was struck by the cultural differences that influenced their medical decisions. While American students suggested medication and greater medical intervention, Finnish students first recommended opening a window and letting in fresh air.
“It was very helpful in reinforcing that there is always another way to think about something,” she said. “Whether it’s about medicine or social issues.”
In Poland, the students met a group of women defending victims of sexual assault. They visited a safe house with nurses, psychologists and lawyers who were available to help women dealing with sexual trauma.
“It was one of my favorite experiences on the trip,” Halterman said. “The women helped us feel so empowered to help other women!”
Senior Taylor Bird said sexual assault advocates taught her about advocacy and emotional care in nursing.
“It kind of taught me to love, to be emotionally supportive, even though I don’t need to use English,” she explained.
She said she realized that caring for people goes beyond helping them physically.
“At the end of the day, you can go to a foreign country and you don’t have medicine, you don’t have equipment, you don’t have a blood pressure monitor, you don’t have anything but you are kind enough to your heart,” Bird said. .