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Sixteen Catholic University students spent their spring break in Puerto Rico applying skills they’ve acquired through the Spanish for Health Care program. The group — which consisted of mostly nursing students and one psychology and brain science major — traveled the island as an “intercultural clinical practicum” of the program directed by Jennifer Maxwell, instructor in modern languages and literatures. They were accompanied by Maxwell and Rebecca Robert, assistant professor of nursing.

The students served Spanish-speaking communities in many ways by working at free health fairs, serving the homeless on the streets, and by visiting the homes of the elderly in remote locations.

“This experience has further taught me the importance of compassionate care,” rising senior Mary Kate Higley said. “A gentle touch, smile, or simple hello can truly go a long way.”

University Photographer Dana Rene Bowler documented their trip.

Compassion and Caring

Catholic University students served Spanish-speaking communities by working at free health fairs, serving the homeless on the streets, and visiting the homes of the elderly in remote locations. 

A profile photo of Emily Tighe standing in Puerto Rico

Emily Tighe
Nursing, 2020 

This trip has allowed me to gain perspective on nursing care. Many of the people we worked with exude compassion and empathy that I haven't seen in a while, and many were not nurses but volunteers. It showed me that above all, compassion and empathy are necessary in order to care for others, as a nurse and in life in general.

A profile photo of Sarah First standing in Puerto Rico

Sarah First
Nursing, 2020 

I feel extremely privileged to have been able to serve the Puerto Rican community. This experience has revealed that the foundation of nursing is compassion and caring for people in a way that upholds their dignity.

A profile photo of Victoria Kirkman standing in Puerto Rico

Victoria Kirkman  
Nursing, 2019

It has been empowering to put my Spanish and nursing skills into practice, as well as humbling to encounter such kindness, vulnerability, and joy amidst suffering and poverty. This experience and one-on-one interactions with the people of Puerto Rico have taught me more than any classroom lesson ever could, and I carry these memories and a deeper understanding of compassion with me as I begin my nursing career.

A profile photo of Colleen Holland standing in Puerto Rico

Colleen Holland
Nursing, 2020 

I am so thankful for this opportunity to learn about more cultures and practice my Spanish. I have been pushed out of my comfort zone, but through this I have learned the most about compassion and empowerment.

A profile photo of Sara Affleck standing in Puerto Rico

Sara Affleck
Nursing, 2020

This trip has been a really moving and eye-opening experience for me. I have grown so much from it, and it has given me a whole new perspective on my future career. I’ve learned the importance of empathy and compassion. And I am excited to be able to practice these values in clinical and after I graduate next year.

A profile photo of Colin McNulty standing in Puerto Rico

Colin McNulty
Psychology and Brain Science, 2020 

This trip has taught me many things about Spanish and health care. But it really has taught me more about humanity. The people of Puerto Rico have been so kind and welcoming and are very appreciative for everything we have done. A simple smile, handshake, conversation, cup of coffee, can make a huge difference. This trip gave me a greater appreciation of how important it is to be kind and compassionate.

A profile photo of Nina Profaci standing in Puerto Rico

Nina Profaci
Nursing, 2020

It is so important to put aside all differences, and treat each individual with compassion and respect, and give your undivided attention and care. That’s my main takeaway from this trip. We are extremely blessed to have served the people here in Puerto Rico.

A profile photo of Graceann Schuck standing in Puerto Rico

Graceann Schuck
Nursing, 2020 

The experience that I’ve had this past week is something that I will be taking with me for the rest of my life. After being immersed in this culture, I’ve realized how much we as nurses have to learn about caring for people of other cultures.

A profile photo of Natalie Weir standing in Puerto Rico

Natalie Weir
Nursing, 2020

This trip has forced me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to grow as a Spanish speaker, friend, nurse, and person. This trip has provided me with a unique experience during which I have gained a love for Puerto Rico, its culture, and its people.

A profile photo of Jacqueline Rooney standing in Puerto Rico

Jacqueline Rooney
Nursing, 2020

This trip has made me fall in love with nursing and the intimate relationship that we can form with our patients. Spanish for health care has given me the opportunity to embrace a language and a culture — giving me the opportunity to care for more people in a holistic way.

A profile photo of Ariana Ahmadiyar standing in Puerto Rico

Ariana Ahmadiyar
Nursing, 2021

This trip was such a blessing and it was so eye-opening to see another culture's health care. This trip was definitely one in which we had the privilege to practice our nursing skills at such a fundamental level, where the focus was primarily on providing care and compassion, which are both so critical to nursing. The people we met and the experiences we had will be carried over to our future nursing careers.

A profile photo of Molly Kelly standing in Puerto Rico

Molly Kelly
Nursing, 2019 

I have been incredibly blessed to have had this opportunity during my college experience. In seeing the impact of Hurricane Maria, the resilience of the community and its health care providers has astounded me. I have learned so much about compassion and quality of care despite adversity, and hope to carry this same attitude into my nursing career.

A profile photo of Jacquelinne Villatoro standing in Puerto Rico

Jacqueline Villatoro
Nursing, 2019

This experience has meant so much to me in that it opened my eyes to what the people of Puerto Rico have been through after Hurricane Maria and how communities have helped themselves when it felt like help could not be found elsewhere. It has opened my heart and I will allow compassion, empathy, and understanding to guide my future experiences as a nurse.

A profile photo of Mary Kate Higley standing in Puerto Rico

Mary Kate Higley
Nursing, 2020

I have been looking forward to this opportunity since I applied to Catholic University, and I gained so much from my time here. The people I met have challenged me to become better as a nurse and a person. I will never forget what I have learned here and I will incorporate this into the care I give as a nurse.

A profile photo of Mary Kate Wasel standing in Puerto Rico

Mary Kate Wasel
Nursing, 2020 

This trip has allowed me to experience the culture of Puerto Rico and encouraged me to utilize my Spanish-speaking and nursing skills. This trip has given me the opportunity to deliver nursing care in a different environment and has truly been a gift.

A profile photo of Kendra Dunn standing in Puerto Rico

Kendra Dunn
Nursing, 2020 

Prior to our arrival in Puerto Rico, I had promised myself that I would immerse myself in the culture as much as possible. I thought that this was the best way to touch the lives of the communities. I did not expect them to affect mine so deeply. The people of Puerto Rico have encouraged me to keep using my nursing, Spanish speaking, and interpersonal skills to continue to travel to places in need.

Becoming a Better Nurse

"I have learned so much about compassion and quality of care despite adversity, and hope to carry this same attitude into my nursing career." - Molly Kelly, Nursing 2019

The Spanish for Health Care certificate program was established at Catholic University in 2010 to address the need for health care providers who could effectively communicate with Spanish-speaking medical patients and their families. 

Maxwell recognized it was not sufficient for students to take standard courses in Spanish — they also needed to learn how to communicate specific medical terms and understand cross-cultural challenges, health beliefs, and practices. Training includes linguistic and culturally sensitive tools to improve health outcomes for Hispanic patients and families. 

Up to 40% of nursing majors earn the certificate. Other participants include students studying psychology, biology, biomedical engineering, and social work.