Scholarship-sponsored travel helps ECU nursing student with Spanish skills

Madiha Abdelhakim, a senior nursing student from Cary, spent part of the past summer, like a number of undergrads, traveling with her roommates in Europe. Her month in Spain, however, wasn’t just for fun — she was on a government funded mission to learn to speak Spanish and understand a different culture, so she’ll be a more effective health care leader once she turns the tassel at graduation in the spring.

Madiha Abdelhakim, left, visited the Sagrada Família basilica in Barcelona with friends and fellow ECU students. (Contributed photos)

Abdelhakim didn’t come to East Carolina University intending to join the College of Nursing.

“Honestly, I didn’t know if I wanted to do nursing until I got to ECU and heard what the nursing program was about,” Abdelhakim said. “I’ve always liked science more than math or English. I ended up really liking nursing.”

For the past two years Abdelhakim has worked several days a month and over school breaks as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, a job that planted the seeds of her decision to pursue the nursing profession.

Abdelhakim said she isn’t cut out for office work, and once she was on the floor of her hospital ward, helping people, she knew that nursing was the profession she needed to pursue. She could blend the science she was drawn to in her classwork with helping others.

“I kind of thought I wanted to do nursing before that, but I wasn’t 100% sure until I started doing the CNA work. I just knew I wanted to be in the hospital to get some experience before I started nursing school in case I ended up not liking it,” Abdelhakim said.

She was already somewhat fluent in Spanish when she started working in the hospital and translates for her patients and colleagues, but she knew her skills were limited.

“We have phones [with access to translation services] but I just don’t think it’s the same. Any time there is a Spanish-speaking patient, they’ll ask me to come in and try to help, but it’s really hard, especially when it’s medical terminology. There are certain words that if I’ve never used them before, there’s no way I would know them.”

North Carolina state demographers estimated that in 2020, 1 in 10 North Carolinians were of Hispanic heritage, and by 2025 that number is expected to rise to 14%. Nearly 40% of Hispanics in North Carolina are foreign-born, increasing the chances of language barriers that prevent equal access to health care.

Importantly for the nursing profession, which Abdelhakim will soon join, research shows that when health care professionals look like their patients, and can communicate effectively with them, health outcomes improve significantly.

Abdelhakim found a way to bridge the gap in her confidence to communication with her Spanish speaking patients through a government-funded scholarship.

The U.S. Department of State offers the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program scholarship for American college students to help defray the costs associated with study abroad programs. The travel and study opportunities the Gilman scholarship provides help students to develop language skills and understanding of foreign cultures for students who may not be able to afford overseas learning experiences.

ECU nursing student Madiha Abdelhakim, second from left, traveled with friends and fellow ECU students to Spain.

Cybèle Cochran, an outreach officer for the Gilman scholarship, believes that the study abroad program will benefit Abdelhakim’s personal growth, and like other students in the program, improve her community and build connections between the United States and Spain.

“The Gilman program exists for students like Madiha who seek to broaden their academic experience through study abroad, while building skills directly applicable to their future careers. Madiha’s patients will benefit from the skills she gained during her time overseas in Spain, including resilience, understanding and openness to new ideas,” Cochran said.

Abdelhakim spent a month in the southern Spanish city of Grenada, and the days were split between classwork and immersion: eating and shopping, being a tourist in a beautiful and ancient city — just being in a Spanish-speaking culture without the lifeline of English speakers who can bridge communicative gaps.

Part of the responsibilities for Gilman scholarship recipients is a service project after the overseas travel is complete. Abdelhakim’s project is to evangelize for the Gilman program, to raise awareness among other nursing students of the opportunities to have an experience like hers because few nursing students take advantage of study abroad programs.

After graduation in the spring, Abdelhakim hopes to work in a critical care setting, perhaps an intensive care unit, and plans to set up job shadowing opportunities at Duke. Regardless of where she lands as a newly minted Pirate nurse, Abdelhakim is certain that her expanded Spanish skills will help her at the bedside to extend ECU’s mission of service to her patients.

“Every time I’m on the unit, there are at least one or two Spanish-speaking patients. It’s a scary situation with the language barrier,” Abdelhakim said.