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Nursing students visit Barrow

November 15th, 2013 | Jillian Rogers Print this article   Email this article  

Barrow is a far cry from, well, from anywhere, really. And most people who live Outside will never get to witness Alaska's northern-most community. But nursing students from Saint Peter, Minnesota, are seeing first-hand the unique and rich healthcare opportunities that Barrow has to offer.

They're also seeing the aurora and feeling the chill of Arctic Alaska.

"I have been loving it ever since we landed," said student Madeline Schmitz in an email. Schmitz is one of three students from Gustavus Adolphus College currently in Barrow shadowing public health nurses.

This is her first time in Alaska, and the learning journey began in early October in Fairbanks with clinical rotations in the obstetrics department at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

Each year for the past three, Gustavus has sent students to Alaska. Last year there were two students who made the trek north, but this year the number jumped to six, so they were divided into two groups and will spend equal amounts of time in Barrow and Fairbanks.

This is the third year for Minnesota students coming to the last frontier, though the collaboration began years before with a Barrow teacher who had a personal connection with Minnesota. Since 2011, however, the program was developed into the curriculum at Gustavus, thanks in part to the effort of the college's nursing department chair, Dr. Barbara Zust.

"Truly the students have a very special and unique experience, very different from public health in the Midwest, but still inclusive of the basic tenants of the practice, said Julie Serstad, a registered nurse and the deputy director of community health services for the North Slope Borough.

"The cross-cultural experience is so enriching for them and for some, the first time out of Minnesota?We have many challenges across the Slope that they have not experienced; long distances, isolation, food deserts, access to care, travel in small planes, weather at the extreme, wildlife, etc."

While in Barrow, students worked in the wellness center along side experienced public health nurses, but also got a chance to travel to Kaktovik to help provide immunizations, well-child exams and offer education at the school. They will also be involved with health screenings at the schools in Barrow, community presentations on a variety of health topics, assisting with the administration of flu shots, and participating in local, cultural events.

When they're not working, the students have enjoyed seeing the sights — including the aurora — and visiting locals' homes to learn about the history of the area. They are also being taught how to make atikluks, said Schmitz.

"I truly believe that being immersed into a new community far from home is giving the three of us a new outlook on public health and nursing," she said.

"We are learning all about how subsistence works and how the community members support one another, providing food to Elders and those in need."

Schmitz added that the information they have been gathering about Barrow and surrounding villages will be used in presentations to various schools when they return to Minnesota.

Lynnea Meyers works at Gustavus and accompanied the students to Barrow.

"From the students who went to Alaska last year and from the initial feedback I received from the students this year, the experience has been life-changing," Meyers said. "... In my opinion, the students get to see public health nursing at its finest in the North Slope."

Meyers noted the students were understandably apprehensive when they first landed on frozen ground in the Far North, but the community members opened up and immediately helped them feel welcome.

Ilisagvik College offered dorms for the visiting students as a place to stay and a chance to interact with other students.

The Gustavus students are selected through an application process, Meyers explained. They respond to a series of questions related to their ability to adapt to new environments and work with people from other cultures and backgrounds.

The students, all seniors, also must be in good academic standing with the college.

"This experience, although not a foreign country, gives the students the opportunity to practice nursing in a setting uniquely different than Minnesota and has some similar features to study abroad programs in that students immerse themselves in the culture and are encouraged to take part in activities in the community," she said.

Before heading to Barrow, the students were able to converse with students April Phillip and Adam Burnett, both of whom graduated from the Allied Health Program at Ilisagvik and are now juniors studying nursing at Gustavus. Phillip and Burnett told them a little about what they could expect, said Gustavus student Laura Dack who is currently in Barrow.

"This experience is very rich for our nursing education," said Dack in an email. "The health care provided here is completely different than in Minnesota, and it needs to be to fit the unique needs of the North Slope.

"A nurse must recognize a patient's cultural beliefs and traditions in order to care for the whole patient."


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