UM-Flint Nursing Trip to Kenya Defines Careers, Changes Lives

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UM-Flint nursing students are studying in Nairobi, Kenya for the ninth consecutive year.
UM-Flint nursing students are studying in Nairobi, Kenya for the ninth consecutive year.

On May 19, a group of students and faculty returned to what has become a second home for the UM-Flint Nursing program.

The group is on their ninth annual trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where they will work alongside Kenyan health professionals and will get a look at practicing medicine through a unique lens.

That, said professor Linda Knecht, who began organizing the trips in 2007, is why the trip is so beneficial to budding nurses.

“They learn a lot about culturally congruent nursing and health care, they learn about different health care systems, those strengths and challenges, they learn about adaptability, critical thinking, about resilience. They have the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in settings other than their own settings,” she said.

UM-Flint Nursing students have been traveling to Kenya since 2007.
UM-Flint Nursing students have been traveling to Kenya since 2007.

In a time when the American health care system is constantly in the news and always on the verge of changing, that wider lens is good for students, she said.

“They talk about coming back here with confidence to work in our own health care system, and a better understanding of its strength and some of its challenges,” she said.

The students work at St. Mary’s Mission Hospital System in Kenya, a system that includes two hospitals, a high school, and a nursing school.

It’s a system that has grown over the years, but still has limited money and resources—another learning experience for students.

“I think they do see the tremendous wastefulness we have in this country, they see things that are used, reused, used in a different way. If they can’t use something in its original purpose, they find a second way, or a third way,” she said. “They also see that many of the individuals who are being cared for are living on a dollar or two a day.”

For at least one student, the experience was both career-defining and life-changing.

Pamela Griffor went on the trip when she was in working toward her bachelor’s degree in nursing. Already an RN in Detroit, when it came time to do the required community health clinical practice portion of her degree, she wanted to get into a new community.

“When I travel I like to go into the community and really see how people live,” she said. “I wanted to see a part of a community beside my own community.”

So in 2013 she went to Kenya.

Part of the trip’s mission is for students to teach while on the trip. And that happened, Griffor said. But something unexpected also happened.

“We went there with this full agenda of what we could teach Kenya. I feel like we did teach them, they were very receptive…but I really feel like I learned more from Kenya than I was able to teach,” she said.

Pamela Griffor poses with two children during her 2013 study abroad trip to Nairobi, Kenya.
Pamela Griffor poses with two children during her 2013 study abroad trip to Nairobi, Kenya.

Among the things she learned was all the things she could do without. She said she’s a far more conscientious consumer now, buying used clothing and driving an older car that works just fine.

Another thing she learned: “Recognizing that people are human. In America we get so self centered that we no longer have eye contact, we no longer say hello,” she said. “We’re multitasking, but really we’re not actively listening to what people are saying.”

Being a poor listener isn’t just a bad way to go through life she said—it’s a bad way to practice medicine.

“Kenya showed me that you really have to listen to your patients and give them your full attention,” she said. “When I was interviewing my patients …I made sure I was no longer multitasking.”

She said it’s a practice she’s brought home with her, as she continues to work at Henry Ford Hospital and pursues her master’s degree.

In short, she said of the experience: “It was life-changing. It was great.”

Scott Atkinson is a writer for UM-Flint University Relations and teaches writing.