Gemma Postill - High School Specials, Medicine & Spanish in Argentina
At the age of sixteen, I was nearing the end of my grade ten year, and that spring, I was also searching the Internet for something fun to do over the summer. When I found the Medicine and Spanish High School Special in Argentina, I thought it was perfect because my dream is to become a doctor and I was taking Spanish in school. I signed up and began making the preparations for my trip.
Projects Abroad matched me with another volunteer as a travel companion, Aleeza, whom I met on my flights and who was staying with the same host family as I was. After more than 24 hours of flying and waiting, we finally landed in Argentina. I realized then just how rusty my Spanish was and how nervous I was, but that all ended as soon as I cleared customs and met our Projects Abroad coordinator. He took us to our new home where we met our host mother, Dora. She was extremely welcoming and gave us a four o’clock morning tour of her house before we went to sleep.
In the morning we met Lucrezia, the other girl staying in our house, and had breakfast. During all our meals together, Dora would teach us some of the Argentinian customs and tell us about the food they usually ate. It was fascinating because it was completely different from the foods in my home country. For instance, I had never eaten dolce de leche for breakfast, but it is a normal breakfast food here!
My Medical Placement
Some of the best things about the High School Special were the touring of many different hospitals and having so many interesting experiences. Each day was a new day with new experiences.
Some of the procedures I observed in my daily routine were: a complicated multi-hour surgery where the doctors were trying to locate an abscess, heart surgery on a premature baby, the removal of stitches, optometry, checkups, and diagnoses. When I came back to Canada, I found that most of my friends who were studying the sciences in university had never experienced any of these things. The experience challenged me to step outside my comfort zone and to try new things.
We also did activities outside the hospitals. For example, one day we attended a medical workshop and learned how to do stitches. On another, we spayed a dog. But for me, the day that challenged me the most was the day we visited the morgue. Here, we examined and dissected a corpse and then stitched it up again. At first I was hesitant, but everyone was very supportive and eventually I gained more confidence and was able to participate.
As some of the experiences in the hospitals were a little heavy, I was worried that every day would be tough, but to my surprise there were actually many funny moments that I will cherish for a long time. In one of the checkups, there was a mother and son who were extremely friendly and wanted to know what I was doing in Argentina. During our chat, she explained to me that similar to how I was learning Spanish in school, her son was learning English. About half way through the checkup, the mother noticed a spider crawling on her neck. When she was freaking out, her son turned to me, smiled, and said “spider” in his best English.
My Spanish Classes
Initially, I found the language barrier to be quite a challenge, especially on the hospital tours as most doctors did not speak English. The great thing about my two weeks of Spanish classes was that they were held in the afternoon. We had classes in small groups based on speaking ability, and the class topics were relevant, dealing with topics such as vocabulary for talking with our host families, to ordering meals at a restaurant.
It was a pleasant learning experience as everyone was extremely patient and excited that we wanted to learn Spanish. Our enthusiasm was rewarded with their willingness to speak slowly so that we could understand.
Evening Socials with Other Volunteers
Every evening was slightly different and fun-filled. Some nights we spent at home with Dora watching Argentinean game shows on television. Dora was as entertaining as the shows; she would really get into them! Other nights we spent time as a group with the other High School Special volunteers.
My two favorite nights were spent with the larger group. On one night, we ate lomitos and tangoed, and on another night we played soccer, and ate empanadas. The food was amazing and the activities were great because both made us feel like we were deep into the Argentinean culture. I had never tangoed before, but neither had most people. It was fun to learn and make our silly mistakes together!
One night, six of us – three guys and three girls – did something different. We volunteered to spend time in a home for pre-teen and teenage girls whose families were unable to take care of them. We went there to wash and remove lice from their hair, but left with so much more. After we styled their hair, we talked with them and ended the evening with a dance party where they taught us some Argentinean moves. Everyone had a blast.
At the end of the night one of the girls turned to us and said, “Today is Friday and we are so happy you spent it with us because we have never had this much fun.” It melted my heart and touched me to know that we were making a difference in just the small things that we were doing and affirmed my passion for wanting to help others.
Weekends in Argentina
At the end of a packed week, I expected the weekends to be boring and low-key, but I could not have been more wrong. The weekends were jammed with activities. We traveled as a larger group, allowing us to spend more time with each other.
My favorite day was the one in which we went zip lining. It was my first time. I was super nervous going up to the top and getting clipped in, but I loved it. I am glad I participated and I am thankful that I had the opportunity to do so. Later in the evening we visited the local Saturday night market. We spent time buying our souvenirs and other tasty treats. I bought an amazing apple cake and dolce de leche tart which I shared with my roommates. A few of my friends bought mate cups, straws, and ponchos.
I learned a lot from this trip and the results were clearly visible. On a family vacation in a Spanish country two weeks later, I was able to order everyone's meals and talk to waiters with ease! Saying goodbye to everyone in Argentina was tough but I was excited to see my family again. It surprised me, but the people I will miss the most are the Projects Abroad staff coordinators. They helped me in countless ways with learning the language and getting us all safely from one place to the next. I grew so close to them and I feel so blessed that they were a part of my trip.
Read more about the Medicine & Spanish High School Special.