Volunteer Review: Spencer T., Dentistry in Mexico
It is not often that one has the opportunity to spend a small part of his life immersed in another country. I have been fortunate enough to encounter two such experiences, the first of which took me to southern Spain.
At 21 years of age, my five months in Spain proved to be very important to me as an individual, student, and member of society. My experience abroad propelled me to challenge myself as a student, embrace new volunteerism opportunities, and eventually achieve my goal of gaining admission to dental school.
The power of international education became quite evident and I wanted to share this realization with others. Thus, upon my return from Spain to The Ohio State University, I worked as a student ambassador, encouraging fellow students to pursue international experiences. Although a rewarding position, serving as a student ambassador did not fully satisfy my interests.
With a year off in between undergraduate and graduate school, I began to research opportunities abroad that would provide extensive exposure to Spanish, a language I had majored in, and dentistry, the profession I would soon enter. Furthermore, I focused my search on Latin American countries to gain an exposure to the type of Spanish I would most likely be subjected to in an American dental clinic.
Projects Abroad is the only service I discovered offering these combined experiences, and so, after having saved enough, I booked my trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, where I would live with a Mexican family for five weeks.
Preparation for my trip entailed reading blogs where I was able to gain an introduction to Mexican slang and some research on the history of the Guadalajara. Having had an experience abroad prior to my trip to Mexico, I was quite aware of how easy it is to fall into the trap of hanging out with fellow English speakers. With this in mind, I made it a personal goal to avoid fellow international travelers and devote as much free time as possible to befriending the Mexicans of Jalisco, Guadalajara.
Arriving in Mexico
On Saturday, March 16, 2013, I boarded a plane to Guadalajara, Mexico. I purposefully chose this time of year to avoid the well-advertised rainy season of Guadalajara. I arrived in the early afternoon to a hot, dry afternoon. The weather at this time of year is slightly short of perfect – hot during the day and cool and inviting evenings.
Projects Abroad staff picked me up from the airport and took me to my new home. I lived in a four-bedroom house with a retired Mexican lady and her son where I had a bedroom to myself. My accommodation was just what I asked for: meals of traditional Mexican cuisine, and a convenient location. My home was close to every major bus line, the Projects Abroad office and a main avenue frequented for nightlife festivities.
Having unpacked my things and settled in, I quickly approached my Mexican roommates to see what their plans were for the night. I’ve learned that demonstrating initiative in foreign situations such as these can often lead to new and exciting experiences, and perhaps, even friendships. One of my Mexican roommates invited me out to visit the popular avenue that I just described. That very night she invited me up to her family’s house in Mazatlan, eight hours north, for Easter weekend.
Having learned to take advantage of opportunities such as these, I graciously accepted and was fortunate enough to visit an international attraction of Mexico’s Pacific border in perhaps the most outrageous time of year, Semana Santa. My roommate and I became good friends. She introduced me to other Mexicans and coached me in many common Mexican phrases. I was very fortunate to have made this connection. She and I continue to keep in touch. Certainly not everyone will have this opportunity. However, not everyone will choose to go out with the locals, rather than other volunteers or students.
My Dentistry Placement
Whilst exploring at night, my dental assignment had me focused on professional grammar and vocabulary during the day. For the first two weeks of my stay in Guadalajara, I met with a private practice dentist from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm Monday through Friday. My doctor provided an extensive crash course in anatomy and vocabulary. He also provided a means to practice common conversation in a dental setting. We covered a wide array of topics.
I can confidently say that my time with this doctor proved to be an invaluable preparatory course for my transition to the dental clinic. I should note that scheduled workdays, at least in dentistry, are often not longer than five hours. This leaves ample opportunity for individual study. The majority of my afternoons were spent reading dentistry magazines in Spanish and blogs to further boost my ability to communicate.
The rewards of these efforts are realized when you find yourself contributing to conversations in ways that you never could have upon arrival. One should also realize that patients in a dental office often use colloquial phrases. The stronger a doctors grasp on theses phrases, the greater his ability to communicate, relate, and comfort the patient.
The second half of my assignment was spent in a dental clinic outside of Guadalajara in the suburb of Zapopan. Time passed much more quickly in these two weeks. As opposed to being confined to one room rarely frequented by patients, my second two weeks were spent in a hospital’s dental clinic composed of five chairs and up to eight doctors. An oral surgeon was always on site and many students came and went. I befriended a few of the young doctors in the clinic.
After a few days in the clinic I grew comfortable enough to ask to assist on oral surgeries. The surgeon, without hesitation, agreed. In two weeks’ time, I assisted on six oral surgeries, the coolest dental experience I’ve had to date. Another doctor took nicely to me, and, after I informed him on my requirement to collect teeth for dental school, gifted me a massive collection of human teeth. If you haven’t picked up on already, the people are nice.
Final days in Mexico
If you demonstrate initiative and enthusiasm, you will be rewarded. I wish that I had had more time in the clinic and in Guadalajara over all. I was on the cusp of befriending some cool dental students my age, but I simply ran out of time.
My fifth and final week in Guadalajara entailed a visit from my parents. During their stay we took a tour of Tequila on the Jose Cuervo Tequila Express, which I highly recommend, spent a few nights in Puerto Vallarta and then toured Guadalajara. It was a fitting end for my time spent in Guadalajara. It is always fun to introduce your family to the people who have become extended family and the city that has become a home away from home.
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.