While balancing classes, extracurricular activities, internships and work, students at West Virginia University have several opportunities for hands-on experiences that connect classroom learning to real-word practice. At Health Sciences, study abroad trips are a chance for students to learn more about healthcare systems and practices and their impact around the globe.

For third-year student pharmacist Leah Dykstra, studying abroad has expanded her insights while enhancing skills necessary for her career. Dykstra recently spent a week in Lima, Perú, as part of a trip with MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education, and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving access to medicine and education while implementing community development projects through partnerships in Latin America and Africa.

“This experience has given me a new perspective when it comes to healthcare,” Dykstra said. “I am used to being in fast-paced environments where there are endless resources and treatment options. However, being in underserved communities where there was a limited number of resources, supplies, medications and healthcare providers forced me to think differently when it came to providing care.”

After learning about MEDLIFE through a friend who had participated in the experience, Dykstra chose to become involved because of the organization’s dedication to sustainable healthcare with clinics staffed by volunteers on service-learning trips and local healthcare professionals.

To better understand healthcare around the world before engaging in a service-learning trip, Dykstra participated in the School of Pharmacy’s Travel Medicine and Global Pharmacy Practice course taught by Professor Jon Wietholter and Dr. Eric Kinney. The course explores issues in global health with a focus on global pharmacy practice and medication therapy.

“This class is extremely valuable and genuinely interesting,” Dykstra said. “I highly recommend it to any pharmacy students who are interested in traveling and global health.”

In early July, Dykstra participated in her week-long service-learning trip which included a community tour, clinic rotations and a project.

“The focus of the MEDLIFE service-learning trip was to set up mobile health clinics within the underserved districts of Lima to provide free healthcare to the communities,” Dykstra said.

Clinics include dentists, gynecologists, general practitioners and additional stations focused on providing pharmaceutical services, proper hygiene techniques and health education.

“Clinics are set up in the community almost every week or every other week to provide that continuous care in which these families rely on,” she explained. “The doctors can also follow up with any patients who need extra care, and some even do home visits for those who are unable to walk to the clinics.”

Throughout the trip, Dykstra had the opportunity to participate in several of the clinics while also expanding on the pharmacy skills she has learned at WVU.

“I got to rotate through two different stations each day and assist and observe the medical professionals. At the pharmacy station, I helped prepare medications for patients to take and I kept track of the inventory. This station was also very interesting because I got to see all the medications in Spanish.”

WVU School of Pharmacy student Leah Dykstra (right) participates in a community clinic rotation as part of a study abroad experience with MEDLIFE in Lima, Perú. 

Dykstra explains that participating in a study abroad experience is an additional way to gain real-world experience in the field while working with medical professionals to provide healthcare. The unique skills learned on the trip will be beneficial for serving patients when she begins practicing pharmacy after graduation.

“The language barrier was very challenging because I had to do a lot of non-verbal communication with hand gestures and pointing,” Dykstra said. “I never realized how much you can communicate with someone without actually speaking, and that was really amazing. I feel a lot more confident now to try and communicate even if it’s with simple phrases or hand gestures. Making a connection with patients is so important when providing care, and simply showing that you care can go a long way with their treatment.”

As WVU Health Sciences focuses on providing students with real-world practice through a variety of efforts such as on campus interprofessional education opportunities, study abroad programs add to their experience and help prepare the next generation of healthcare professionals.

“It’s an amazing way to learn more about yourself, meet people all across the world and learn outside your comfort zone,” Dykstra said.

WVU Education Abroad provides several resources to students interested in study abroad trips including affiliated and partnership programs, scholarship and financial information and pre-departure orientations. At Health Sciences, the Global Engagement Office works in collaboration with the Office of Global Affairs to connect students to strategic international partnerships and global health initiatives.

Photo at Top: WVU School of Pharmacy student Leah Dykstra in front of MEDLIFE mural in Lima, Perú.