Mika White - 2014 Program Participant

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

I have always cherished the international experiences I’ve been exposed to. I grew up abroad most of my life, and most recently lived in Beijing before applying to university in the U.S. While I have been exposed to a number of international lifestyles, I wanted to fully immerse myself in the rural Chinese environment and live like the locals.

Having an internship and being away from my family and friends allowed me to do that, and at the same time allowed me to test my independence. Living in an unfamiliar setting for two months was a real test of independence and I would not have learned the same skills and qualities I learned had I completed the internship with a group of other students or with my family members. An international health program seemed like a logical step toward gaining further independence, learning about health care systems in other countries and truly understanding how locals live in rural China.

Volunteers with local students on a field trip to the grocery store in China

Me and another volunteer taking Eileen's English students on a field trip to the grocery store

Why did you choose your CrossContinental?

When I started looking for programs to go abroad, I didn’t know how to narrow down my options. I knew that I didn’t want to go to the larger cities, like Beijing or Shanghai, because the number of expats in those cities would make the experience less of an immersive one. I chose CrossContinental because it seemed like the most immersive and affordable program. It was well organized, the coordinator responded quickly, and I was supported every step along the way. It also eliminated logistical issues, such as providing housing, so that I would not have to worry about finding a place to live in an unfamiliar town.

I was also provided with details about the hospital I would work at and the general day-to-day lifestyle I would follow. Before I enrolled, I was also connected to past volunteers who completed the same program, so I was sure that it would be a good fit for me. When I arrived to the town, I was given a warm welcome and was well taken care of by my host, so I had complete confidence that I would spend an incredible two months abroad.

What was your favorite part about the location of your placement?

I stayed in WanQuan, located in the outskirts of the city of Zhangjiakou. I liked that it was a small town near larger cities. It had the small town feel that one might sense in a small southern town in the U.S.; I would see people from work at the supermarket, if someone from the hospital saw me walking to work, they would pick me up in their car, and I received several dinner invitations.

WanQuan itself is still quite unfamiliar with foreigners, so I was practically seen as a celebrity. Although it was uncomfortable at times to be stared at and pointed out in public places, I had the opportunity to be on local television with another volunteer who had arrived about a month into my internship. By the end of my stay, I was very comfortable walking and taking public transportation on my own since it was such a small town. At the same time, it was comforting to be able to travel back and forth on weekends to Beijing (where my home is) via a three-hour train ride. I also explored the larger city of Zhangjiakou during my stay and went on a longer weekend trip with another volunteer to Inner Mongolia.

Chinese practitioners and foreign medical volunteers

The traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and local Chinese students

What made your internship unique?

It is unique in its structured yet flexible approach. The program was structured just enough to keep me organized; I had defined hours and workdays, but was given the freedom to travel on weekends and do my own activities in the evenings. I decided my start and end days for the internship, and planned my visa renewal trip so that I could stay for the entire two months.

In my work environment, I was provided enough guidance to express my expectations and limits, and at the same time was given the freedom to participate in small procedures. I was also able to explore some other activities outside of the health care system. I chose to do a health care internship, but also had the chance to explore English education and travel to other areas in China.

I found that the balance of structure and freedom best maximized my time and helped me grow both professionally and personally.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

Eileen, my local coordinator, was extremely helpful and supportive whenever I had questions or concerns. I could ask her questions about local customs, certain Chinese terms, or have help navigating Chinese websites to book my train tickets. She was available to me 24/7, and helped me ease into the local environment. She had experience traveling to other countries before, so she was very understanding if I had trouble with certain things, like eating chicken feet or expressing myself in the local language.

Eileen’s family was also very welcoming during my stay. Although they couldn’t speak English, they took care of me, whether it was driving me home in the evening or making me eat more food than I could handle. Eileen’s seven-year-old niece tried to teach me Chinese and her mother always ensured that I had a full stomach. It was as if I gained a new Chinese grandmother while I was there.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had more of an idea of what I wanted to get out of the program. I completed this two-month internship during the summer after my freshman year of university, before I had figured out a definitive purpose for it. I was not looking into nursing or medical school, so I wish that I had known my goals for pursuing this internship. I have now defined my interests to global and public health and health advocacy, so this experience was definitely not wasted.

A medical volunteer in China prepped for the operating room

Dressing for the operating room to observe surgeries and childbirths

Describe a day in the life of your internship.

I’d wake up around 6:45 a.m. to have enough time to eat breakfast and prepare for the day before walking or taking a taxi to be at the hospital by 8 a.m. I spent the mornings in the nurses’ ward because things were usually busy at the start of the day. We’d organize and allocate medicine for each patient, clean and change sheets in each room, and check up on patients that needed close observation. I then followed the physicians who treated external wounds, assisting in holding body parts in place or removing bandages.

After completing these routines, it would usually be time for lunch around 12:30 p.m., so I would return to my homestay house to eat lunch and take a nap before returning to work at 2:30 p.m. In the afternoon, I would work in either the OB/GYN or traditional Chinese medicine ward and assist in the activities carried out there. My day ended at 5:30 p.m., so I would walk home to eat dinner and spend time in town or at home.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time?

I enjoyed teaching English on weekends. Eileen, my local coordinator, is a weekend English instructor for primary school students. Since I worked Monday through Friday, I had the chance to spend several weekends in the classroom with her, helping with English pronunciation. I also befriended another English teacher in the town, the sibling of a physician at the hospital, and I visited his classroom a couple of times to help with lessons.

Although I didn’t go to China to be an English instructor, I enjoyed seeing the response from my efforts. Chinese students are generally a lot more motivated and studious than those in the U.S., especially at a primary school level, so it was interesting to see how engaged and willing to learn they were. It was apparently very exciting for them to meet a real-life foreigner; at the end of my stay, I was even asked to autograph their notebooks and take pictures with them so they would remember me.

What type of accommodation did you have? What did you like best about it?

I stayed with the local coordinator in her home. I liked having my personal space where I could wind down and read or write. I honestly had no complaints about the apartment; I had sufficient privacy, there was a Western “sit-down” toilet (unlike the squat toilets practically everywhere else), and a kettle at my disposal for whenever I needed drinking water. All the basic necessities were there, such as hot water, electricity, and air conditioning.

The apartment was on the top floor, so I barely heard any outdoor noise, and it was close to the market so I could purchase fruit and snacks whenever I needed to. Apart from breakfast, I ate my meals at my host family’s home, which was walking distance from the apartment and the hospital. At first, I thought it would be tedious to go back and forth between the hospital, my apartment, and the family home, but it was quite easy to fall into a routine and know where to go at what time.

Medical volunteer in China removing acupuncture needles from a hospital patient

Removing acupuncture needles under the guidance of the traditional Chinese medicine doctor

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

In a technical sense, I feel a lot more knowledgeable about health care in China. Personally, I grew much more confident in my independence and ability to adapt to new environments. Since then, I spent six months in a rural town in Uganda to learn about the health system there.

Combining the international experiences I have had, I am gaining a more wholesome understanding of global health and what needs to be accomplished for worldwide health equity.

Back in university, I have joined clubs and extracurricular groups that focus on international healthcare. In my classes, I am more motivated to learn about the systems that I experienced firsthand, and I now have more targeted goals for future internships and job positions that I will pursue after graduation.