For Northeastern University communication studies major Kristina McKinney, learning to speak Spanish meant total cultural immersion. She began her crash course with a three-month international co-op at an orphanage in Córdoba, Argentina, followed by another three-month stint translating for medical students at a hospital in Cusco, Peru.
“There were no English speakers in all of Córdoba,” says McKinney of her first co-op, where she lived with a host family. “I had no choice but to learn Spanish.”
She also says that tutoring and caring for children at the Hogar Bethel orphanage opened her eyes in ways she didn’t expect. “These were some of the happiest kids I’ve seen in my entire life,” she says, adding that the experience sparked her desire to continue teaching English to Spanish-speaking students in South America.
But first she would have the chance to do the reverse. During her next three months at the Belempampa Health Center in Cusco, Peru, she worked as a translator for Spanish-speaking patients trying to communicate with a group of English-speaking volunteers from the Newark, N.J.-based New Jersey Medical School.
“It was kind of funny that I was already translating a language that I only started learning a few months ago,” she says.
But it turns out that using her Spanish-speaking skills was the easy part of her job at the health clinic. She also wound up helping to deliver babies.
“I told them I wasn’t a medical student,” recalls McKinney. “But they were understaffed.” So she rose to the occasion, and under close supervision by medical staff, assisted by drawing blood from umbilical cords, recording newborn weight and height measurements, and making rounds with the obstetricians.
“It’s an experience that I’ll probably never have again,” she says. But she notes that the opportunity taught her as much about herself as it did about how to master a Spanish accent or work in a maternity ward.
“After working abroad I feel like I could conquer anything,” says McKinney. “When I graduate, I would love to get a job in another country. That’s my goal.”