Cape Verde Study changes life for URI nursing student

KINGSTON, R.I. – November 7, 2011-While studying abroad in Cape Verde last summer, University of Rhode Island nursing major Sarah St. Jean experienced the shocking reality of healthcare in developing countries.

St. Jean knew from the start that she didn’t want to study abroad in a country with a standard of living similar to the United States.

“Cape Verde was out of my comfort zone; I wanted to experience something new and life-changing,” said St. Jean, a resident of East Greenwich, R.I.

Earl N. Smith III, the assistant dean of student affairs at the College of Arts and Sciences, headed the program. St. Jean embarked on the study abroad trip to Cape Verde for 23 days without knowing the eight other students involved.

While abroad, St. Jean participated in an independent study of Cape Verdean hospital environments and practices in comparison to those in the United States. She was struck by the lack of medical supplies, sanitation, and overcrowded patient rooms. St. Jean observed one examination room with 10 patients inside, waiting for medical attention.

“A baby had been born in one of the rooms before I arrived, and the area had not been cleaned. I had no idea how long ago it had happened, but in a hospital in the U.S. it would’ve been taken care of immediately,” said St. Jean.

The lack of doctors is a major contributor to the poor conditions. In Cape Verde, there are no medical hospitals; aspiring physicians have to go elsewhere to receive their degrees. Once they become aware of the higher salaries and the better hospital conditions other countries have to offer, it’s hard to get them to come back.

St. Jean’s favorite part of the trip was the community service projects at local orphanages. The students gave out food and drinks, played with the children, and painted a hop- scotch design at the school so they could continue the fun in the future. The faculty raised money to buy a sink and toilet for the orphanage, which the students then helped install. These simple parts of daily life in developed countries were luxuries for the orphanage.

“Working at the orphanage, with the underprivileged children, was the most rewarding experience during my visit. I really feel like I made a difference in their lives, even for just one day,” recalled St. Jean.

She was happy to discover the overall friendly disposition of the Cape Verdean people, which made the transition into the new culture that much easier. The students and residents worked hard to communicate with each other. St. Jean even learned some Creole- a mix of Portuguese and African- in the process. She and the other students also visited two impoverished towns and talked to the youth about problems they face on a daily basis.

“We compared our experiences in the United States to theirs in Cape Verde in order to gain a better understanding of and find similarities between our cultures,” St. Jean said.

The feedback helped determine ways the students could improve the Cape Verdeans’ standard of living; for example, sending school supplies from the United States.

Although she enjoyed the trip, St. Jean was happy to come home. The experience taught her not to take anything for granted. When St. Jean returned home, she immediately went through all of her clothes, purses, shoes and coats and filled up five bags with items she no longer needed and gave them to charity. Once school winds down, St. Jean plans on joining Habitat for Humanity.

“I would love to write and publish an article in a nursing journal in hopes that I can increase knowledge of the health care difficulties they face there, and ways in which we can help in the United States,” said St. Jean.

She hopes that her interest in foreign health practices will open up opportunities for a nursing career abroad, allowing her to continue aiding those in developing countries.

Pictured Above:

BEST FRIENDS: URI nursing student Sarah St. Jean poses for a picture with some pals in Cape Verde while helping out at an orphanage; photo courtesy of Sarah St. Jean.