Summer in Sri Lanka: Psychology student serves as medical volunteer

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

Margaret Dunlap, a sophomore Psychology major, had a remarkable and enlightening summer experience as a medical volunteer at a Sri Lankan hospital.

We talked with her to find out more about what it’s like to live and work in a Third World country and what she learned during her time there.

What was your internship position (title)?

Medical volunteer

What were your responsibilities?

I had a mix of observation and helping. My duties included taking blood sugars, blood pressure, pulse, changing dressings, assisting in surgery, and doing physical exams.

How did you obtain this position?

It really just required filling out the application for Projects Abroad. Anyone can do the internship, but skill level and enthusiasm determines how much you are actually doing and you’re doing patient care or just watching.

How long was the internship?

6 weeks

Was it a paid position?

No. It was a volunteer position with Projects Abroad.

What made you look to Sri Lanka? Have you been there before?

I originally planned to be in India, but problems with the visa office resulted in my advisers rerouting me to Sri Lanka, a tropical island off the coast of India. I knew I wanted to be in an underprivileged area with a vastly different culture, preferably in Asia. I had not been to any part of Asia before, so culture-wise, it was a huge shock.

Why do you think they chose you? Why did you stand out?

One reason I stood out was my enthusiasm to learn. I came in as one of the youngest students and I openly admitted to having little real medical training. The doctors and advisors appreciated my humble attitude and willingness to do whatever needed to be done so I could learn.

As a college sophomore, you were doing an internship in a foreign country. Were you ever surprised to find yourself there?

I definitely was in awe that I was able to have an experience like that. If it wasn’t for my parents, I never would have been able to go. There also were several times when I remember thinking “I’m just a kid, what am I doing practicing medicine in a foreign country? When did I become responsible enough or mature enough to do this?”

How do these types of experiences enhance (or bring to life) the lessons you’re learning at Behrend?

At Behrend,  I learned how to be comfortable around people much different from myself. My freshman year, I lived in Perry Hall, which, at the time, housed primarily international students. I grew up in a small town with very little cultural diversity, and I had never lived in close proximity to people with such vastly different backgrounds. I became close friends with many international students, though it did take me some time to get used to being surrounded by different cultures. This experience certainly prepared me for living in Sri Lanka, where everyone’s culture was different from my own. Even the other students staying with the same host family had different backgrounds. I not only got a taste of Sri Lanka but also Japan, Ireland, England, Canada, Germany, and Australia.

margaret dunlap pix2

Margaret Dunlop, left, and a friend ride an Asian elephant while in Sri Lanka this summer

What was it like in Sri Lanka? Did you enjoy living there?

Sri Lanka is a Third World country in Asia. I lived in Colombo, the capital city, which is on the west coast. It was insanely hot, humid, dirty, smelly, and full of insects. But, it was also wonderfully exciting and exotic. All of the things that could have been taken as negatives were actually positives if you looked at them properly. There was no air conditioning, no hot water for bathing, no silverware (you ate your rice with your hands), and no toilet paper. The only Caucasians for miles were the other eleven students living in my house, and only seven of them spoke English as their first language. Living in Sri Lanka certainly was an adjustment. Literally everything is different there, but the differences are also what made the trip so fun!

What’s the most valuable lesson you learned during your experience this summer?

The most valuable lesson I learned is that I am stronger than I think. There were times when I was so scared or miserable that I just wanted to buy a plane ticket home, but I didn’t. I persevered and enjoyed the experience. In the end, I am a better person for it.

Did you learn anything that you’ll apply this semester to your classes/projects here at Behrend?

One of the biggest things I learned is to not second-guess myself. There were times where I was in surgery and panicking that I would make a mistake or I would be doing an initial examination on a patient with other medical students and second-guess myself. Sometimes I would hesitate if a doctor asked me a question just because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and look stupid. Eventually I realized that I know more than I think and I should learn to be confident in that. And even if I don’t know the answer or I do have a stupid question, who cares? That’s why it’s called learning.

What are you career plans? What do you want to do?

I plan to go to medical school after college to become an orthopedic surgeon with a focus in sports medicine.

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