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Shoulder to Shoulder Global in Ecuador Gives Students Hands-On Experiences

By Kathryn King

A&S students from all majors benefit from this high-impact learning opportunity. 

UK’s unique partnership with the Centro del Salud Hombro a Hombro general medicine clinic and the broader Santo Domingo, Ecuador community provides an abundance of opportunities for teamwork, professionalization, and engagement with local and global issues. The experience has the ability to change A&S students’ outlooks on the world and should be one all students consider, according to three recent participants.

“I had never traveled out of the country before [this summer],” said Sydney Adkisson, a current dual-degree student in psychology and public health. “It was amazing. You can learn about it in a textbook, but it is completely different stepping out in another place, eating, trying to get a taxi – seeing that people face the same issues in other countries, regardless of money or culture. They have the same issues we have here, that we are trying to fix here, too.”

UK sends four annual “brigades” with Shoulder to Shoulder Global (STSG) to assist the team there with both clinical visits and community outreach. Brigades are composed of students, professors, physicians, and community members who work in clinical and non-clinical settings and are joined by students from the Universidad de Las Américas (UDLA) in Quito. The brigades are open to students from all backgrounds and majors.

“The program is wonderful for all UK students because it really provides opportunities for professionalization, teamwork and global exposure,” said Cristina Alcalde, associate dean of inclusion and internationalization in the College of Arts & Sciences. “There’s also been a new brigade added that is a non-general medicine one, so these experiences are not limited to the health sciences.”

During the June 2019 community health education brigade, of which Adkisson was a part, UK and UDLA students collaborated to develop and present health education topics to younger students in a K-12 school in Santo Domingo. The brigade met with 11 classes total at the school and gave each class three presentations – one on general health/hygiene, one on sexual health and one on substance abuse.

“Health education in the U.S. doesn’t work very well, but going over there and seeing the looks on the kids’ faces, they were so intrigued and they wanted to know more,” Adkisson said.

The UK students had prepared draft presentations in advance of the trip, but they immediately recognized the need to change their material once they began to interact with the children. “We did an overdose training for heroin and cocaine. Once we got there, we realized that the kids knew the drugs we were talking about,” Adkisson said. The UDLA students were able to provide guidance and together the students worked to revamp their presentations to be more relevant.

The brigade also performed eye screenings at a geriatric home and gave general hygiene sessions at a home for girls, many of whom had histories of neglect and sexual abuse.

According to Adkisson, her time on the brigade changed her career trajectory. “Now I want to see more cultures and expand my research not even just to Kentucky, but outside of the U.S.,” she said. “My plan has been to get a Ph.D. in Public Health and to do research in violence epidemiology, but I want to expand that globally now. I’m more interested in global mental health.”

With the focus of the Shoulder to Shoulder Global program on intercultural learning and experiences, its impact is far-reaching.

“Through this program, we are focused on projects the community partners have identified. Our students are able to apply a lot of the skills they learn in class and better understand another culture in a way that helps their community,” Alcalde said. “We have an ethical relationship with the community that’s been built on years of trust through Shoulder to Shoulder dating back to 2002.”

Alyssa Jones, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, participated in the August 2018 general medicine brigade. She stated that STSG was the first time she was able to use her skills as a clinician overseas. “I had to think about how to be most effective, knowing I would only meet with each person one time, and that’s a skill I wanted to develop,” Jones said. “You have to be willing to be flexible and creative throughout the day and think quickly on your feet.”

The experience was invaluable for Jones in her approach to patients. “It’s about learning how to let someone teach you about their own culture and their own history,” she said. “It’s easy to unintentionally make assumptions about how other people view things, but when in a new place, it’s really important to listen carefully and be open. You realize that you can’t really know what is going on for a person, or the cultural expectations involved, until they tell you. This skill is universally important for me as a clinician, whether I’m in Kentucky or Ecuador.”

Whitney Barber, who graduated with dual B.S. degrees in biology and neuroscience, traveled to Ecuador in August 2017. Barber cites a long-standing interest in healthcare, stemming from childhood stints in the hospital and her love of science, as reasons for her joining a brigade. She also appreciated the sustainable commitment that UK has to the clinic and community – it’s not ‘voluntourism,’ she said.

“Healthcare is not equal – not in our country, and not in our world – and we have the power to change that,” Barber said. “The best way is to experience that and try to problem-solve is on the ground. It’s a great way to experience another culture, get some shadowing hours for medical school and just learn about the human experience.”

Volunteering with STSG solidified Barber’s desire to work in the medical field. “This really mapped out what I want to do,” she said. “I was on the border, like do I want to do a Ph.D. or be a doctor? I definitely want to go to medical school and do something related to global health. There’s something heartwarming and heartbreaking about knowing as much about available medicine in the United States and then going abroad and not being able to do the same. It’s a call to action.”

First round selection deadline is October 18, 2019; however applications will be accepted until all brigades are filled. The brigades take place during breaks in UK’s academic schedule, and scholarships are available. Whatever your major, you can learn more here: or contact Craig Borie at