Let the World Change You

27 Jan

After his foreign exchange experience in Germany at the age of 15, Nick Penco, a native of Buenos Aires, swears he came home to the US changed for the better. An emphatic proponent of the mantra “Let the world change you,” Penco fully understands the power of cultural immersion and has since dedicated his life to allow students to be changed by a similar experience abroad.

Fueled by his passion, Penco majored in International Relations at San Francisco State University. In 2005, Penco joined the team at Child Family Health International (CFHI) as the Student Programs Manager. His job allows him to encourage the passion and desire for world exploration and understanding in undergraduate and medical students around the country. He travels along with the students to India, Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador, and South Africa, to check up on the program and help out in any way possible. More than his ability to speak Spanish, Portuguese, German, and English, Penco says that his Argentinean heritage allows him to easily connect with people from these countries, for he understands more deeply the first world-third world dynamic from their perspective. While they may not have the same background, students looking for a similar camaraderie with the community need only to show immense respect for their different values and culture, and a desire to learn.

Penco takes pride in CFHI’s “service-learning” approach, which stresses the value of approaching medical work abroad as a personal learning experience rather than a service trip for the resource poor. He believes that the downfall of many programs is that they allow students to travel to clinics in developing countries with a sense of entitlement, and he has high hopes that CFHI will serve as a positive example for global health immersion programs around the world. By changing the mindset of the students, they will be able to absorb more about the culture, language, and local health care system, while still providing the services needed in that area.

One main critique of medical outreach is that the students get more out of the experience than the locals, what Penco calls CFHI’s greatest concern. By providing medical supplies, working with local doctors, partnering with the communities, remunerating them, and providing what they really need in a responsible, ethical manner, CFHI students continuously make sure that the people are greatly benefitting from their work. All the while, the students are immersed in a unique environment that challenges them to learn about patient care, medicine, international health care, respect, and culture.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the chaotic culture shock that many experience abroad in India, Penco says that it’s incredibly encouraging to see the strength of the partnerships they have through the various communities abroad. To see continuous success, improvement, and the students’ increased understanding of the world, that’s what makes all of the long flights, planning, and meetings in hot, humid villages more than worthwhile.

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