An Insider's View to the Summer International Health Fellowship Experience
Article written by Daniel Weng, SIHF Nicaragua alum and former University of Pennsylvania Chapter President
How could I sum up my experience in FIMRC experience in Limón, Nicaragua…
Well, imagine you’re on a rusty old bike that your butt isn’t too acquainted with yet. It’s the first day of work and you’ve just left the entrance to your house. Perhaps you have the attention span of a shovel, because you can’t seem to remember whether you’re supposed to make a left or right. You shrug your shoulders and make an educated guess based on landmarks that you’ve never seen before. They said it should take around 20 minutes, but you decide to pedal for a little longer…60 minutes? 80 minutes? Is that an airport hangar in the distance?
Having a hard time? Me too!
Hopefully on your first day, you don’t become “that kid who rode all the way to the airport” to everyone in the local community. But this is just to show that the struggle of adapting to a new home and new local language can be…pretty fun and hilarious! Unless you’ve been on many homestay programs in particularly rural countries, this is going to be either somewhat or very much out of your comfort zone. Many volunteers will spend the first week asking themselves: “What the heck am I doing here…am I really going to be here for another 4 weeks…?” You may get into the habit of “counting down the days” until you can finally take a real shower, or speak with your local fruit vendor…I mean Starbucks barista…in English.
And that’s COMPLETELY fine.
For the majority of us, there’s no way to fully prepare yourself for this kind of experience. Things are going to hit you fast and without warning sometimes (whether that be the Nicaragua lingo or the occasional flying cucaracha). Just know that things may get a little turbulent in the beginning, and that you have a great support network in your FIMRC family. It becomes your decision to either back away from these opportunities or really make the most of them.
To give you at least some initial expectations, here are some things to know before you go.
- The local community and your host family will most likely not speak any English. Zero. And you won’t be getting a personal translator. Luckily, your host families are going to be some of the most patient and caring people you’ve ever met.
- You will most likely be taking bucket baths and eating a lot of the same thing every day.
- Don’t expect to look good when you come into the clinic.
- There will be substantial amounts of biking, walking, and overall physical activity during the day.
- Nicaraguans take chilling to a whole new level. Perfect time to bring a good book or share your life story (in Spanish of course).
- Don’t expect to get two weeks of “Spanish 101” or extended amounts of clinical training. This is on-the-job, get-your-hands-dirty training at its finest.
After setting these expectations, the way that I turned my SIHF experience into something extremely fulfilling was committing myself to three simple tenants:
- Embracing the struggle.
- Setting realistic goals and expectations.
- Loving my host family.
Embracing the struggle:
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite question: “How much Spanish do I need to know?”
Clearly, knowing some ounce of Spanish will help you feel more comfortable communicating with the local community and your own host family. But you really don’t need to know any Spanish at all.
Is your first week going to be tougher? Probably. Do you need to work even harder memorizing household phrases, not to mention medical terms and Nicaragua slang, in Spanish? Most likely. Will your experience be that much rewarding when you have your first (somewhat coherent) conversation with your host family?
FIMRC SIHF is different from a lot of other volunteer programs because it puts you at the heart of these communities and their people. You’re not just observing the local cultures and social dynamics, only to go back to your comfy cabin with air conditioning and Wi-Fi. Instead, you’re an active member and contributor of the community. The inherent struggles that come with this level of involvement also define its fulfillment. And beyond that fulfillment, it more importantly equips you to make tangible impact at the clinic and beyond.
So no. You don’t need to know any Spanish because you’re not enrolling in the Nicaraguan medical brigade. As much as this trip is about providing clinical support to those in need, it’s also an opportunity for your own personal development and creating lasting relationships.
Setting goals and expectations:
While embracing your struggle is important towards discovering great opportunities. setting realistic goals and expectations will only maximize how much you get out of them.
In relation to Spanish, this could be:
- Spending 30 minutes to an hour every night looking over words that you didn’t know throughout the day. The perfect way to practice these words? Talk to your host family!
- Designating a single day where you’ll attempt to use only Spanish when speaking with your FIMRC team.
- Brushing up on your Spanish a week before the trip. If you have zero knowledge of Spanish, I would download Duolingo as an easy and fun way to learn some basic phrases.
And if you properly manage your expectations, you should be fine stumbling here and there (or if you’re like me, stumbling everywhere and falling off the paddleboard). By the end of your trip, you’ll be surprised how much progress you’ve made both in your Spanish and your overall level of comfort.
Love your host family!
Nothing made my trip more enjoyable than the love and care of my host family. But just like everything else, your relationship with your host family will largely be defined by your initiative. They’re not going to force you to socialize or put you in visibly uncomfortable situations. So go out there and make a fool of yourself!
By the end of four weeks, you’ll most likely be tearing up and writing heartfelt letters for them. In my host father’s case, the letter was nice but he would have preferred an American Visa.
Below are just a handful of experiences that defined my time in Nicaragua.
- Bringing the birthday cake for my host father’s birthday.
- Trying to herd cattle as everyone in the family laughs at my attempt.
- Going to church service with my host brother and sister.
- Helping my host sister with her English rendition of Back Street Boys.
- Making my host mother laugh every 30 seconds with my overall buffoonery.
Having an hour long discussion about the different dynamics of American, Chinese, and Nicaraguan politics with my host father. (15 of those minutes may have been spent looking for words in the Spanish dictionary).
Pack these with your snack bars and toothbrush!
- The first week is going to be rocky, and that’s okay!
- Embrace your struggle.
- Set goals and expectations.
- Love your host family!
And lastly, I’ll leave you with a quick interaction between me and my host father during the last week of my fellowship. Enjoy!
As I finished re-nailing the door to our clinic’s vegetable garden, I see Reynaldo strolling out towards me in his washed out t-shirt and cargo shorts. He looks over the makeshift door and says:
“Daniel…who built this?”
“Myself and a few other volunteers. Just spent the past hour getting it fixed. What do you think?”
He nods his head and in a disappointed tone, audibly whispers:
“Well, it’s a pretty shitty door.”
He smirks at me as I roll my eyes, completely used to his daily needling. We walk back together into the clinic both laughing at his remark.
“You should stick to medicine. You’re probably better at it!”
Touché Reynaldo. Touché.