UAlberta students bridge borders in Colombia

(Edmonton) From art therapy and music programs to safe sex and clean needles, the University of Alberta’s occupational therapy students’ clinical placement in Bogota, Colombia, certainly offered a variety of learning experiences.

From March 21 to May 3, nine students in the occupational therapy master’s program in the U of A’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine were given the opportunity to do a South American placement for the first time. The trip was partly thanks to a connection made by Liliana Alvarez, a PhD student in rehabilitation science and an assistant professor at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota.

A new opportunity

“In 2009 an agreement was signed between the two faculties, which has led to a number of collaborations. Tim Barlott, an occupational therapy master’s student, was doing his thesis work in Colombia and came up with the idea of giving students from the U of A the opportunity to do their placement there,” explains Alvarez.

Among the students selected to travel south was Kelsey Hagg, a second-year student.

“I have to admit that one of my initial concerns about going was the thought that I might be missing out on a really structured Canadian placement, but the things that I’ve gained through this experience, I wouldn’t change for anything,” she says.

After a brief two-day orientation, Hagg and the other students began their placements throughout the city. She was placed at Batuta Fundación National, a national organization that offers community music programs for kids that have been displaced by violence.

“Working with children from ages five to 18 in a single group setting was a very new experience for me,” says Hagg. “Often kids in Canada are grouped by age, so my placement required a lot of creativity in developing interventions that were appropriate for the whole group.”

Reducing harm, increasing knowledge

Jillian Franklin, another second-year student, worked with a different demographic for her placement. For six weeks, she was stationed at the Fundación Procrear, a site at the heart of Bogota’s red-light district.

“The work we did in this area focused on harm reduction. This involves minimizing the risk of harmful activities; it could include handing out clean needles to drug users or condoms to sex-trade workers,” says Franklin. “Our site also used art therapy, which was really cool and different from some of the techniques I was used to. Most importantly, our site provided a safe place for community members to come and enjoy activities.”

But the placement wasn’t without its challenges.

“I think that we were all under the impression that our host students would be our interpreters, but we found out very quickly that they weren’t,” says Franklin. “When we met them for the first time at the airport, they asked us if we spoke Spanish, and we asked them if they spoke English. When we realized the answer was no, we all just said ‘whoooooa,’” she recalls with a smile.

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A broader perspective

Despite some language difficulties, Alvarez and the other co-ordinators are proud of how the students were able to think on the fly.

“This placement stretched our students both professionally and personally. It pushed them to think outside the box and broadened their view of occupational therapy to a global perspective,” says Alvarez.

“Though there is some contrast in the way that Colombians practise occupational therapy, the core of what we’re trying to do as occupational therapists—enabling participation in meaningful activity—is unchanged. The important lesson is that we’re all about the same thing regardless of our country,” says Hagg.

Alvarez says the Department of Occupational Therapy plans to offer this placement option to students again next year.

“It was our first time doing this placement, so we will take what we learned and improve upon it for next year,” says Alvarez. “With this said, though, it was a great first time and the overall feedback has been very positive,” she adds.

Hagg and Franklin also offer up some words of advice for those students who may be thinking about going next year.

“Definitely be sure to practise saying the word ‘therapist’ in Spanish,” Hagg laughs. “Normally I would pronounce it fine, but one day it slipped out with a funny accent, and I ended up accidentally saying a pretty inappropriate word. Thankfully there were no kids around!”

Joking aside, both students stress the importance of being flexible.

“Be really open and ready for change; it’ll make the experience a lot better,” says Hagg. “Each day, you could be at a different site and with different people, so be sure to go with a willing mindset.”