From visiting recovering women addicts at a treatment center in Nashville, Tennessee, to standing on the Cliffs of Moher on the western coast of Ireland, UTEP School of Pharmacy (SOP) students have traveled outside their comfort zone this summer to expand their cultural and intellectual horizons.

Since March, dozens of students from the Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) program’s inaugural class at The University of Texas at El Paso have traveled across the country and overseas to engage in unique learning experiences designed to prepare future pharmacists to better serve diverse communities and cultures.

Among them is Krista Ramirez, the first in her family to travel to Europe. The student, 12 of her classmates and Pharmacy Clinical Assistant Professor Denise I. Pinal, Pharm.D., spent two weeks in Ireland from May 27 to June 11, 2018.   

"Seeing the Cliffs of Moher was such a breathtaking experience,” Ramirez said about the stunning view that stretches five miles along the Atlantic Ocean. “We didn’t even get to finish touring the cliffs because they are so long and there is so much more to see.”

According to school officials, UTEP’s pharmacy school is the only program of its kind in the United States that requires students to participate in short-term study abroad or study away experiences.

These activities create opportunities for student engagement, professional preparation, and to understanding what it means to be a health care provider in a global setting, said Pinal, the SOP’s study away AIM (Aligned, Integrated, and Meaningful) coordinator.

Students will be exposed to the many social determinants of health and seek to understand how their actions affect both local and global communities,” she said. “On a larger scale, we hope that the experience will allow our students to become increasingly informed, open-minded, responsible individuals who are attentive to diversity across a spectrum of cultures and communities.”

Learning Outside the Classroom

For one to six weeks, SOP students engage in service learning while immersing themselves in cultures and communities outside of their own. Students received SOP scholarships to help pay for part of the trips. The Office of Study Abroad also provided additional support for students completing international experiences.

Apart from Ireland and Nashville, students and faculty have traveled to four other locations this summer. They have volunteered in local health centers and schools in Presidio, Texas; traveled to the University of Kansas’ School of Pharmacy in Wichita, Kansas; built houses with Habitat for Humanity in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and discussed health care and pharmacy issues with U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of students in our community have never left El Paso,” said Clinical Assistant Professor Sweta Andrews, Pharm.D. She traveled in March with the first group of study away students to Nashville. “With health care becoming so diverse and global, we want them to experience what culture outside El Paso may look like and prepare them to practice anywhere in the country and beyond.”

Students participate in a variety of activities. In Ireland, they toured the campus of Trinity College Dublin, attended lectures on pharmacy, and analyzed Irish poetry.

Ramirez said the poetry lecture enhanced their critical thinking skills.

“This type of mindset or way of thinking relates to pharmacy in the sense that a pharmacist must be an analyzer and a critical thinker when caring for and treating patients,” she said. “This experience will make me a better pharmacist because it has taught me to learn how to think with colors and not to think in black and white.”

Students also toured the School of Pharmacy at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where they attended a lecture on polypharmacy and the harm caused by overmedicating older adults. That lecture prepared them for their visit to Our Lady’s Hospice, which is Ireland’s largest hospice, located in Dublin.  

Students such as Julieta Esmeralda Rodriguez helped to feed and talk to patients in the hospice’s palliative care unit. The experience reaffirmed her decision to practice geriatric pharmacy after she graduates in 2021.

“The residents in this unit couldn’t speak,” Rodriguez recalled. “But you have to find a way to make them feel comfortable. I told them where I was from, why I was there and about my culture. I made one of the residents laugh a lot. It was a good lesson in compassion and empathy.”

Staying Close to Home

In Nashville’s Renewal House, Erica Boakye listened to residents talk about their addiction to drugs and alcohol. Their personal stories gave her a better perspective of substance abuse. The experience inspired her to become a more empathetic health care provider.

“Listening to them, you’re able to understand where they’re coming from,” Boakye said. “In order to provide the best health care for your patient, you have to let them be the center of the conversation. You have to be able to understand what is making them do that. And if they’re not getting better, what is it that’s stopping them from getting better?”

Boakye was part of the first group of pharmacy students to participate in the SOP’s study away program. They traveled with Sweta Andrews to Nashville for nine days in March.

Students spent a week at the Renewal House’s Family Residential Treatment Program, which provides services for women going through treatment and recovery and their children.

Based on the residents’ feedback, students developed presentations on nutrition, cooked 30-minute meal recipes and answered questions about the proper way to take a child’s temperature.  

“They were all new moms and they wanted to know more about over-the-counter medications and Tylenol for the babies,” SOP student Marisol Blanco said. “We talked about dosing recommendations and prenatal vitamins.”

Although they remained in the U.S., Nashville felt like a different world to Yvette Olivas.

“I’ve never been outside of Texas so everything was different,” Olivas said. “It was very eye opening for me.”

The trip also was an opportunity for students to attend the American Pharmacists Association annual meeting in Nashville.

“At first I wasn’t sure why I had to go on study away,” said Boakye, a native of Ghana in West Africa who moved with her family to El Paso six years ago. “But after this trip, I understand that it’s important that you learn from different communities to be able to understand the different populations and give the best health care possible.”