Dr. Erica Kiernan, a physical and occupational therapy faculty member, understands that the greatest lessons aren’t always learned in a classroom. Instead, inspiration might strike while treating a patient at a hospital in Morocco or helping dig a well in Central America.
For six years, she has led student groups on volunteer trips around the globe with the goal of exposing future therapists to diverse communities—and bringing care to the patients who need it most.
It’s no surprise Kiernan leads these trips. She served more than two years in the Peace Corps in the West African nation of Benin. “I joined the Peace Corps to make a difference,” she says. “But some of the biggest changes occurred within me. I became more compassionate and understanding. Those are skills you just can’t learn from a textbook.”
Now, Kiernan encourages students to step outside their comfort zones by facilitating similar trips. Working with Cross-Cultural Solutions, an international volunteer nonprofit that partners with local organizations in-country, she has coordinated weeklong tours to five countries since 2009, including Peru, Costa Rica, and Brazil.
“Students often ask me what to expect,” says Kiernan. “I tell them it’s best not to have any expectations at all.” At the end of each trip, students frequently report they were shocked they could do so much in health care settings with so few resources.
She also refutes a common assumption about international volunteerism: You don’t need to speak the local language. Facial expressions and gestures go a long way to convey emotions and act as an icebreaker when communicating with locals. And learning to use body language as a communication tool will help students when they become practitioners.
Kiernan hopes students remember small moments like these when they return home. Some are bitten by the travel bug and continue to make volunteer trips. All bring a newfound patience and empathy to their work. Despite the short length of the trips, Kiernan believes they make a lasting impact on the communities she visits. “Sometimes,” she says, “just being there is enough to make a difference.”
Food for Thought
Want to join a volunteer trip? Dr. Kiernan offers a few recommendations:
Volunteering is what you make it. Expect to be in a community with strained resources; you have to be flexible. You’ll learn how to make use of the tools and resources you have and learn new, creative skills.
Don’t expect to communicate verbally. You may not know the local language. Communicate by using body language and showing emotion—both you and your patients will benefit.
You’ll learn invaluable cultural competence. Your trip will pull you out of your comfort zone and force you to learn how to interact successfully with a range of patients, which will also be helpful when treating patients from different backgrounds and circumstances back at home.