If you want to accelerate your professional development, learn about nurses and patients in other cultures, broaden your world view, and be transformed by your work experience, international travel might be for you.
This career journey will allow you to understand and appreciate patients from other cultures and help you adapt your care to them. International exchanges allow you to meet with and learn from nurses who practice in your specialty around the world. If you’ve ever considered volunteering for a humanitarian mission during a disaster, traveling to a different part of the world will help prepare you.
A word of caution: Traveling to other countries is guaranteed to transform your point of view. I’ve experienced many different cultures and met other home-care nurses all over the world. And through my experiences I’ve discovered the oneness that brings all nurses together.
Where to start?
Consider attending an international conference in nursing. You will make valuable contacts and find colleagues with whom you have a connection. To find a conference, do a Google search for “international nursing conferences.” Then, select one you want to attend. Contact the conference organizers to learn about networking and other opportunities. Ask if scholarships are available for attending the conference. Many times, small amounts of money are available to pay travel costs. In exchange for the money, you may be asked to do some work at the conference. To further reduce your conference costs, ask the organizers to find a roommate for you. (See Who can help with international exchanges?)
As an alternative, try a literature search for a nursing topic and put “international” in the search string. Most articles contain the e-mail address of at least one author. You can write to an author and ask to visit the area and perhaps tour the author’s university or facility. Often, you will be a welcome visitor. You may even be asked to give a presentation at a college or hospital. In my own specialty of home care and hospice, few countries have a similar system, so I travel with photos and a list of Internet sites for interested colleagues.
Preparing for your trip
International travel takes more preparation than travel in North America. Consider these recommendations:
• Obtain a passport and visa, if needed.
• Learn about the culture you’ll be visiting.
• Check on immunization requirements and travel insurance.
• Pack light. Usually, the weight limit for travel within a country is lower than the limit for international airline travel.
• Take information on yourself, such as photos of home, family, community, department, and specialty.
• Pack a daily journal, business cards, a small first-aid kit, and medications. Many people find they need sleeping pills.
• Take earplugs, a white noise machine, or a sound machine.
• Take your camera.
• Take a sturdy envelope to keep receipts for reimbursement or tax deductions.
Planning your activities
Discuss your activities with your host. You may want to visit schools, hospitals, museums, and cultural sites. Don’t schedule more than 6 hours in a day. Also, try to balance each day with some organized activities and free time for spontaneous activities.
Make sure each host knows of your previous activities, so all events build on one another. Plan less structure for the end of the trip, when you are likely to be tired and thinking of home.
Taking the trip
Learn and use basic greetings, eating methods, and daily rituals during your trip. Your hosts will appreciate your effort to communicate in their native language, even if you struggle with the pronunciation. No doubt, you will provide some entertainment as you master basic communication phrases. Be sure to laugh at yourself! You will find the skills you use to communicate with a patient who can’t speak come in handy when traveling. Picture boards and hand signals can go a long way in getting your point across.
Wherever possible, stay in the home of a local person, even if English isn’t spoken in the home. I’ve stayed in Thai and Brazilian homes without knowing the local languages and managed to communicate with my hosts. Sometimes, communication is enhanced because hosts want to practice their English skills. Such exchanges can be a great source of pleasure for all involved.
Spend some time each day trying to find your own way around, even if you are with a group. Use public transportation. Order food or purchase souvenirs without a translator. These experiences can be the most exciting part of a trip. The more you submerge yourself in the culture, the greater the emotional experience and the more knowledge you acquire.
Keep a journal during your trip to help you remember the places you’ve been. Use a map to help you keep track and take pictures of signs to remind you. Periodically, e-mail family and friends to maintain contact with loved ones and to keep a record of your trip.
Collect business cards and make notes on the back of the cards. Be sure to leave your cards with others. Keep a business card of your hotel or the address of your host, so you can always find your way back.
Planning future collaborations
As you prepare to leave each location, ask about the host’s interest in future collaboration. By sharing your interests and perhaps your résumé or curriculum vitae, you can help hosts determine if there’s value in working together in the future. Some collaborations will require formal contracts between your agency and the host agency. Others can be informal. Have your host put all suggestions in writing. This helps bridge communication gaps that invariably occur, even between colleagues in English-speaking countries.
Collaboration can also occur between visits. For example, exchange photos or consider co-authoring an article that compares your nursing specialty in the country you visited and the United States. Such activities help further develop your relationships.
Plan a few days to rest on your return. I’ve experienced some profound culture shocks upon returning to my middle-class home in southern California. After one trip, I found I wasn’t comfortable in my own home because it felt too crowded. I wasn’t content in my home until I thinned out my closets.
During this rest time, send thank-you notes to contacts and suggest future activities. Also, use this time for the reflection needed to process your experience.
If you decide to integrate international travel into your career development plan, you’ll find many opportunities to meet nurses from all over the world. The joy of meeting others is surpassed only by the joy of self-discovery and growth. If you’re open to the cultural differences, you’ll find that the experience is professional and personal development at its finest. O
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Marilyn Smith-Stoner is an Associate Professor of Nursing at California State University in San Bernardino, California.