Students experience poverty and the role of South African nurses

May 07, 2009

A class of six nursing students that recently traveled to South Africa to learn first-hand how the role of a nurse differs from country to country and created a video to help teach other students involved in international nursing trips what they learned.

“One thing that really stuck out in my head,” said Jamie McHale, a student on the trip, “is that nurses in South Africa have much more responsibility than we do, but still not that much respect. They can prescribe medication, which is a doctor’s responsibility here. Seeing some of those differences made me want to take on more responsibility in my own career, by becoming a nurse practitioner.”

The students met with South African nurses and nursing students to get a sense of how the health care and economic situation differed between South Africa and the United States. The trip allowed them to see clinics in which Western Cape nursing students gain practical experience.

“This was a public health and community-focused trip,” said Beth Bates, instructor in nursing, and one of two faculty members leading the trip. “South Africa provides a unique learning environment for students. HIV/AIDS is a prevalent issue there now, and the effects of apartheid provide a unique cultural perspective.”

In addition to receiving exposure to different cultures and ways of life, the students provided assistance in some of the most economically disadvantaged areas of South Africa. They distributed school supplies, personal hygiene products and t-shirts in the government-funded health care clinics in Khayelitsha, South Africa's largest informal settlement. It is home to more than 1.3 million people, many of whom are poverty stricken.

The students said the trip to Khayelitsha will remain in their memories.

“I will never forget the people of Khayelitsha,” noted Lauren Shuttlesworth, a student on the trip. “Their courage and hope in the face of unimaginable adversity is awe inspiring. In many instances, orphaned children as young as six or seven years of age are the head of households, caring for younger siblings by any means necessary.”

Nicole Meekins said, “The people were so proud of what they have, even though it wasn’t much. Here, we try hard to have the best, but there, they accept that the best is what they already have.”

Jessica Mann, another student on the trip, agreed: “We always hear about the poverty in developing countries, but it impacts you so much more when you see it up close.”

This is the School of Nursing’s third trip to South Africa. The school sponsors trips to Sweden, Ecuador, and other countries to give students a chance to see cultural dissimilarities and how nursing differs based on the culture.

“It’s hard to not feel immediately connected to the people we saw there,” said Bates. “Part of your heart stays there after you leave.”

The event was sponsored by Sigma Theta Tau Nursing Honor Society. For photos of the nursing students' visit, go to

  • Nursing students handing out toothbrushes to South African youth. For additional photos of the visit, click on photo.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010