Immersed in a Different World
Viterbo nursing students Lacy Meyers and Megan Sheehy felt like celebrities. People would approach Sheehy to feel her hair and touch her skin. Meyers “felt Hollywood” when asked to pose for photographs.
“We definitely stood out in the crowd,” Sheehy said.
Meyers and Sheehy were on the streets of Kyoto, Japan. They were among nine senior nursing students and two faculty members who spent two weeks last semester in the country as part of a class on transcultural nursing.
“The nursing program and its curriculum is very exact so there is not a lot of opportunity for study abroad,” said Meyers, who is from Stewartville, Minn. “So when this fascinating opportunity to experience it firsthand came up, I just embraced it. It was just unbelievable that it was going to focus on nursing and healthcare in Japan. It was fascinating for me to go and experience it firsthand.”
The aspiring nurses spent the two weeks totally immersed in Japanese culture, which included homestays with host families. The students also spent nine days studying the Japanese healthcare system at places such as Immaculate Heart University, Viterbo’s sister school in Sendai City; a major hospital; a traditional nursing home; a hospice center; and a public health center.
“It was a great opportunity to understand the Japanese people and culture and expand our horizons,” said Sheehy, who is from West Salem. “The Japanese people really enjoyed our company and wanted us to enjoy their country.”
Discussion of making such a trip began five years ago when a group of Japanese nursing students from Immaculate Heart visited Viterbo. Faculty member Judy Anderson, director of global education Beth Moore, and dean of nursing Silvana Richardson visited Japan in the spring to finalize the details.
Students paid approximately $3,000—an excellent price for the all-inclusive trip. Viterbo Board of Trustees member Ernie Micek and his wife Sally provided funding to offset some of the costs associated with the cross-cultural immersion.
“During the planning, we had to decide what were the important elements of that culture and history that would set the context of the experience in Sendai City,” Anderson said.
From tea ceremonies to the art of flower arrangements to Shinto Shrines, the Viterbo group gained a unique perspective into the Japanese people and culture. “The food was definitely the biggest culture shock,” Sheehy said with a smile. “I wasn’t used to eating raw beef, egg, chicken, and fish.”
“When I was at a nursing home, they served us what I would describe as raw overgrown minnows, with the heads cut off, but with the scales and bones,” said Meyers, who was also a good sport. “I ate four or five of them, because I didn’t want to offend anyone.”
As is the case with a good cross-cultural experience, the students were deeply affected by much of what they witnessed, even aside from the healthcare system. The most memorable visit for many of the students was to the city of Hiroshima and its Peace Museum, where they spoke to survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945, which killed an estimated 140,000 people.
“There was no hostility or negative feelings,” Sheehy said. “They wanted us to learn from this, so it doesn’t happen again. I think they consider our generation the future.”
The days spent learning about medical care in Japan gave the students a different perspective into healthcare in general. Japan practices traditional alternative therapies such as acupuncture and massage in addition to modern Western-type medicine. They also have universal health insurance, and patients are typically hospitalized much longer than in the United States.
“I was impressed.” Meyers said. “For example, they treat stroke patients with Eastern and Western medicine, and they have a 90 percent recovery rate, which is outstanding. They are also very personable with patients.”
Anderson and fellow faculty member Pam Johnson said the students learned a great deal from their experience with Japanese medicine, which will make them better nurses in their future careers.
“Students were able to gain a more holistic view of the patient,” Johnson said. “Western medicine is all about things such as CAT scans and x-rays. In Japan, people are into the spiritual aspect of the care. And trips like this help the students develop a comfort level with people of different cultures and religions,” she said. “Students learn that people who are not Christian can be kind, wonderful, caring human beings.”
“One aspect of nursing is universal, and that’s caring,” Anderson said. “I found myself reflecting on my own practice. It was a growth experience for Pam and myself, too. Experiencing the best of a culture makes you look at your own culture and ask, ‘What can we do better?’”
For many of the students, the trip was the experience of a lifetime. “I could live there,” Sheehy said. “It was a great experience for everyone involved.”
Most students developed a relationship with their host families and have kept in touch. “My host family and another stayed and watched our plane taxi down the runway and take off until they couldn’t see it anymore,” said Meyers, who learned this via email after she arrived home. “It was a tearful good-bye for many of us.”
Both Anderson and Johnson commended and thanked Viterbo for its support of these types of programs and opportunities. “I believe deep down in my heart that trips like this are life-changing events,” Anderson said. “You come back a different person. My ideal is that every student gets an opportunity like this.”
It was an opportunity Sheehy and Meyers are extremely happy they took.
“I feel privileged and honored that I had this opportunity,” Meyers said. “It’s one thing to read about a culture and a give a presentation like we did in class. It’s a whole other thing experiencing a culture.”