Betty McDonald Pre-Med Institute

Learning about the U.S. from 3000 miles away:

A service trip to Panama sheds new light on American culture

April 9, 2013

 Panama Service Trip

When Young Ri Jung, a student of MPI and SUU, signed up for his first cultural immersion trip, he had mixed feelings. The trip would take him a world away from the United States, to Panama, a place where the English and American culture he had been working so hard at picking up would do him little good. "I was worried at first,” Young Ri admitted. “I thought I didn't know enough yet. I thought I would mess up.”

Not only that, but there would also be the patients to deal with. “Since Panama is a third-world country and we would be volunteering in a low income clinic, I imagined many people there might never have been to a doctor,” Young Ri remarked. Would there be deformities or advanced stage diseases he would have to deal with?  But in spite of these doubts, Young Ri decided to take the chance. On March 9th he met the 24 other students from SUU, Dixie and various others schools in the small Central American clinic where they would serve together for a week. 

Panama Service Trip

The work was difficult at first. Young Ri couldn't understand the translator’s accent, he didn't know what to say to the others, and above all, was weighed down by the thought that “If I’ve never done it before, I won’t be any good at it.” As he watched his companions seem to effortlessly blend in, he began to isolate himself from the others.

“This is a common problem that Korean students face,” says Johnny Oh, Young Ri’s mentor and Director of the Betty McDonald Pre-Med Institute. “The U.S. culture supports an attitude of ‘jump in and learn as you go,’” an idea that can be difficult to grasp for those from a culture where successful pupils ‘watch and learn,’ and mistakes are avoided as they reflect badly on one’s trainer.

In the end however, it was the extroverted attitudes of his classmates that made the difference to Young Ri. “Even though I was nervous, everyone was very kind to me. No one judged me when I wasn't sure what to do.” Even the translator truly wanted to help. He sat by Young Ri, repeating as often as needed until his accent could be understood. Little by little, Young Ri adopted the attitude of his peers until, by day three, he was fully immersed in the work.

Panama Service Trip

The patients, it turned out, had almost all been to a doctor previously. There were no deadly diseases to be dealt with. Most visitors simply needed prescriptions for existing conditions. Others had infections or skin conditions, but soon Young Ri found himself working easily with everyone he met. “I gained a better understanding of how to think critically and diagnose patients. I learned about calculating dosages and how to deal with the people as individuals.

But the biggest lesson he took home? How to feel comfortable with U.S. Americans. “It’s okay if you don’t always know what to say or do,” Young Ri says with a smile. “It’s a work in progress. You don’t have to know everything to do the task. You can learn and grow as you do it.” Now when he sees the SUU students from the Panama trip in his own classes, Young Ri has the confidence to strike up a conversation. Even more importantly, he now has the foundation for any new situation he may came across. “It’s all a state of mind,” says Oh. “If you can manage your bias and opinion of yourself, you will see things as they really are.”

By David Cowley