Sam Nelson is an undergraduate student at Temple University pursuing a double major in Biological Anthropology and Spanish. Nelson is also a certified Pennsylvania and Nationally Registered EMT.
As I geared up for my two-month volunteer long trip to Peru with the Foundation for International Medical Relief for Children (FIMRC), I couldn’t help but second-guess my decision to travel abroad. “You barely know Spanish. You’ve never taken vitals on a real patient before. You can’t handle being away for two months.”
I usually pride myself on my optimism, but these thoughts would creep into my mind as I was preparing to leave. I was nervous, and I didn’t know what to expect from two months in another country. What I got was much more than I had anticipated.
I signed up for FIMRC’s Summer International Health Fellowship (SIHF) in Peru for two reasons: to gain more health care experience and to practice speaking Spanish. I originally signed on to do one month in La Merced and one month in Huancayo, but after two weeks of working with the incredible communities in and around La Merced, I knew I was meant to stay there for the entire trip. That’s also when I knew I no longer wanted to pursue a career in medicine.
It wasn’t an impulsive decision. I had been working myself up to it for a few months. When I signed up for SIHF, I was 100 percent certain I wanted to be a physician’s assistant (PA). By the time I boarded the plane to Peru, my certainty went down to about 50 percent. Peru helped clarify the uncertainty I had been feeling all along as a pre-med and then a pre-PA student. An opportunity to explore a career path outside of medicine felt liberating, but also scary.
My experiences in La Merced helped shine a light on my true calling and gave me the confidence I needed to be open to changing the career path I had originally laid out for myself. Every week, I visited a nearby mountain community called Shawan Rama. We would always arrive to an empty and quiet place but, after a few minutes, the children would come running up to greet us, eager to learn something new and participate in a fun activity. I fell in love with this special group of children. Even though we were the ones tasked with leading workshops on conservation, biodiversity, and healthy habits, I was surprised by how much the children already knew about their jungle community and how much they had to teach me. We painted masks of the local animals in danger of extinction, sang songs about conservation, created and painted soap dishes, and even learned some new dance moves to promote exercise. Watching how excited the children would get when we painted, colored, or danced was incredibly touching — their love and passion for learning was pure. I cried in my Field Coordinator’s arms as we left the mountain after my eighth and final visit to Shawan Rama. “No te vayas,” the children yelled as we departed. Don’t leave.
During my time in Peru, I also helped establish a neighborhood youth club with some other SIHF volunteers. Because I decided to extend my trip, I was able to see this club grow and thrive from an initial meeting with five attendees to the last meeting I attended with 24 children who heard about our group and joined us for a lesson on dental hygiene and brushing teeth. The youth club was a huge hit in the community.
And our group’s reputation extended far beyond the children -- one night at a local bar in downtown La Merced, one of the bartenders held up the Supertooth coloring page we had given to the children just the day before. She explained to us that her daughter, Sabrina, loved our club and was inspired to pursue a career in medicine.
I. was. floored.
Hearing the impact that we had made on Sabrina gave me goosebumps. I was sold; this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: working directly with local communities in South America to provide health and other education to local children and families. I even plan on applying for a position in the Peace Corps after I graduate to begin my journey in international development.
When I boarded the plane in Philadelphia in June, I was anxious about spending two months in an unfamiliar place. When I arrived back in Philadelphia in August, I had a new attitude and had adopted a new mantra: Go for it. New experiences can be frightening, of course. Jumping off a waterfall, hiking the Lares Trek, and trying cow heart were all things I never expected or thought I could do. Changing my career path after two years pursuing something else was extremely stressful. But I went for it. And I am a happier person because I did.
Sam Participated in FIMRC’s renowned Summer International Health Fellowship. For more information on SIHF, see the infographics below or request more information.