In May, 2013, LSA biology major Shontinique Uqdah boarded a plane headed to Peru. It was the first time she’d ever been on a plane, the first time she’d ever gone abroad, and the first time she’d traveled anywhere by herself.
So it wasn’t surprising that she was feeling a bit of trepidation as she headed off to a foreign country possessing barely passable Spanish skills for a summer internship working at a center that aids malnourished children.
“It didn’t feel real until right before I left,” she says. “That was the first moment I began to get scared.”
But Uqdah, who wants to be a pediatric physical therapist, banished her butterflies by summoning her determination to spend the summer working with children in the health field. She took a deep breath and stepped on that plane.
And, boy, is she glad she did.
Uqdah spent two months in the tourist town of Cusco in southeastern Peru, working at Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center for Malnourished Infants. She lived with other international students at a volunteer house near the center of town. The children’s center was a short walk away.
Each morning she headed to the center to work with the children who ranged in age from six months to 3 years old. She led some classroom lessons on colors and numbers, and helped to prepare meals — careful to make sure they contained the right balance of nutrients. Afterward, she would help weigh the children and chart their progress.
During her off time, Uqdah would help out at a nearby center for children with disabilities and at a shelter for abused women and girls.
She also did some sightseeing and soaked up a lot of the local culture. And if she found a good spot with Internet access she would Skype with her mother back home.
Recalling the whole experience later, she says, “I’d taken my science classes, my health-based classes, as well as my Spanish cultural classes, but nothing compared to being there,” she says, wearing a Peruvian handmade sweater. “You can read about it in a book,” she adds, “but until you experience it you’re never quite sure how it’ll be.” She arrived well prepared to take advantage of the experience, and she learned it by living it.
The summer abroad did present some challenges. Uqdah’s barely passable Spanish made it difficult for her to soothe a crying child at times. “I didn’t always know what they needed or how to help them. That was difficult,” she says.
Next Stop: The World
Her success has pushed her to try it again. This week she starts a new internship in Madrid that will give her even more experience working with kids.
After graduation, she plans to serve in the Peace Corps for two years before returning to school to get her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree with a specialty in pediatrics.
She says the summer in Peru made her better prepared for the Peace Corps and, later, her career. Her time away from family and friends immersed in another culture taught her “how to manage sharing the Western customs I am used to with my host country while respecting and opening myself up to their culture…These are skills that cannot be learned in a classroom — experiences that must be lived to fully appreciate and understand them.”
It is an experience she recommends for everyone, whether it’s for two weeks or two months.
“You learn things and see things you can’t even imagine,” Uqdah says. “This was my first time abroad, but I took a chance because it was something I wanted to do. You grow as a person, you become independent, you learn to get things done on your own, and you find ways to communicate. It’s definitely a growing experience, and it will help me for the future.”
Top photo courtesy of Shontinique Uqdah.