The 'lightbulb moments' of studying abroad
For ACU nursing academic Theresa Harvey, overseas study tours are all about the ‘lightbulb moments’ – those occasions when a student is engaged in a learning experience that will change their perspective.
“I get so much reward from witnessing those moments of revelation, seeing the growth that occurs in these individuals,” says Dr Harvey, senior lecturer and international coordinator with ACU’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine.
“Often a student will express that the experience has broadened their cultural lens and helped them in their professional development as a nurse or a midwife, and that is such a vital thing – increasing cultural sensitivity and competency to better equip students to work as healthcare professionals in a global world.”
Through her career, Dr Harvey has had ample opportunity to observe these moments of transformation. She has accompanied students on study abroad experiences in Denmark, Italy, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India.
Her postdoctoral thesis, published in 2023, explores the lived experience of undergraduate health discipline students who have participated in short-term study abroad programs.
While previous research has shown that these trips provide valuable learning opportunities, there have been relatively few studies that explore the personal experiences of health discipline students who participate.
“That’s why I decided to focus on this topic for my PhD,” says Dr Harvey, who has also worked as a registered nurse and midwife in Australia and overseas.
“I thought it was important to examine and gain an understanding of how these experiences impact healthcare students, and how the skills, attitudes, and values they develop during study abroad can be transferred to their professional roles.”
On the ground
Over the past decade, a growing number of university students have taken part in overseas learning activities, thanks to considerable investment from both the Australian Government and the higher education sector.
Students at ACU are no different, engaging in study abroad at the university’s campus in Rome, or with partners in countries like Fiji, Vietnam, Timor-Leste, and parts of Europe.
In mid-2023, Dr Harvey led a group of 14 nursing and midwifery undergraduates on a short-term international study experience in Hyderabad, India.
Funded by the Commonwealth Government’s New Colombo Plan, the tour was organised by ACU in partnership with CHAI, the Catholic Health Association of India, which serves around 21 million patients annually.
During the two-week tour, students worked in both private and public hospitals, with occasional field trips to some of Hyderabad’s most marginalised communities.
“I think that intimate engagement with community is a really important one for students – working in underprivileged areas where they are lacking in resources, seeing how CHAI works to support communities that are at disadvantage,” says Dr Harvey, who was accompanied on the tour by fellow ACU midwifery academic, Melanie Shackle.
“Some of these situations can be quite confronting for students, but they also provide an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the different contexts of global healthcare. In Australia, we live in a small bubble, and it’s important that healthcare workers develop that understanding so they can develop flexibility and adapt to different contexts.”
Despite having previously led tours in India and other emerging and developing nations, Dr Harvey admits that even she had moments of culture shock during the trip.
“Whether you’re a seasoned traveller or a student who has never been overseas, there’ll always be a situation where you experience disequilibrium, discomfort, and agitation,” she says.
“Certainly in a healthcare context in a country like India, which is in some cases profoundly different to Australia, you’ll have some sort of culture shock. We prepare our students for these situations, and it’s really important that they are supported to learn to deal with discomfort, to reflect as they learn, develop, and grow.”
A common goal
So, how do short-term international study experiences contribute to personal development, transforming the way students view themselves and their future professional practice?
In her research, Dr Harvey identifies several themes that emerge in the study abroad process. They range from the initial feelings of anxiousness about the unknown, to finding a sense of belonging, to eventually adapting to cross-cultural encounters and becoming mindful of the developing self.
“You have students who initially struggle with things like the lack of medical resources, so they’ll arrive and think, ‘Oh, isn’t this terrible? The nurses don’t have this and they don’t have that’,” she says. “But with time they start to adapt, and they start to accept, and they soon realise how much they can learn from the resourceful nurses and midwives they come into contact with.”
A similar process occurs with the language barrier that many students encounter.
“Often students get frustrated with the difficulty in communicating, and that was even the case in India, where English is spoken quite widely,” she adds.
“Then within a few days, I had students say to me, ‘I didn’t realise how much I could communicate by observing and using body language and interpretation rather than words.’ That’s a skill they will use when they come back and practice in Australia, and that’s important because we are a multicultural society and nurses and midwives will likely encounter language barriers. It really does broaden their cultural lens and their ability to be accepting of difference.”
As one student told Dr Harvey, studying abroad “just changes your view on so many different things”.
“It has really changed me, not just on a clinical level or a professional level but on a personal level.”
And despite the dozens of trips over recent decades, Dr Harvey still finds herself changed after every experience.
“I’m always broadening my lens,” she says. “On a personal level, I enjoy exploring and understanding different cultures and different perspectives. On a professional level, it allows me to reflect critically on my role as an educator. I often talk about seeing the ‘light bulb moments’, when students truly connect with the learning they are engaged in. That’s incredibly rewarding, and I feel extremely fortunate to have had that opportunity.”
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Find out more about the New Colombo Plan.