Nursing Students Planning for Major Mission Trip to Costa Rica in March

October 07, 2013 / by / 0 Comment

By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau 

In the category of Memorable Spring Break Trips, this will be one for the record books. 

There will be sunshine and Caribbean surf, scenery and shopping, even a breathtaking zip-line adventure in Braulio Carrillo National Park. But for Grand Canyon University students who will be traveling 3,000 miles to Costa Rica during spring break 2014, much more is in store – academics, humanitarian aid to a Third World nation and opportunities to share the love of Jesus with its people. 

The College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has partnered with International Service Learning (ISL), a Texas-based nonprofit organization, to bring up to three teams of students and faculty to Puerto Viejo in northeastern Costa Rica from March 15 through 23. ISL pairs college students with medical and educational volunteers to provide a wide range of health-related services to residents of developing countries. Its primary destinations are Central America, South America, Caribbean islands and Mexico. 


About 50 GCU students will work amid the natural beauty of Costa Rica and its Braulio Carrillo National Park on a mission trip in the spring.

As many as 48 GCU students — primarily those in nursing, but potentially from the College of Education and the College of Theology, too — will live and work among poor people with a variety of undiagnosed and untreated health problems. Sherri Spicer, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, said this potentially is the largest group of nursing students ( including pre-licensure, RN-BSN and nurse practitioners) to do a short-term mission trip in GCU history. 

Dozens of students have expressed interest in going because they want the experience of interacting with a Third World culture and bringing health services to an underserved population, Spicer said. 

“That’s what you sign up for,” she said. “What you actually get is a humbling, life-changing experience as you are showered with gratitude from people who are impoverished by world standards, but who are rich in faith, trusting that God will always be there no matter what hardships they endure.” 

During a recent meeting with faculty and students, Michael Birnbaum, ISL’s founder and president, said the nonprofit provides medical care to about 200,000 people in 10 countries per year. Nearly 20 years ago, while working as a missionary, Birnbaum had a revelation that college students were needed in the field. 

“I’d see busloads of students with cameras and tape recorders, while we were slogging it out with the poor people,” he said. “Universities would send students to study and document poverty, but not to do anything about poverty.” 

ISL was formed in 1994 to combine humanitarian efforts and Christian outreach with a rigorous and hands-on academic program that results in an authentic service learning experience, Birnbaum said.

For example, nursing students do “village triage” by going from house to house to interview patients, from the very young to the very old, gather family histories, take vitals and provide basic screenings for hypertension, diabetes and eye health. Accompanied at all times by translators and medical professionals, the students also do public-health surveys of the living quarters, assessing water quality and sanitation issues. They leave with a snapshot of the family’s overall health and well-being. 

“We don’t have enough doctors to go to every house in every village, obviously, because we’re talking about hundreds of villages,” Birnbaum said. “But as nursing students of your level, you already know more than most pre-med students, so we can give you training in the field with your faculty (members), and put you in those houses, and you’ll know what to do.” 

The villagers needing treatment are invited to a clinic, held periodically in a town meeting place in the center of a village, where they are seen by doctors and nurses. The students observe the examination, diagnosis and treatment processes. 

Voluntary devotions and prayers are part of the mix, too, and because 60 percent of the population in Latin America is younger than 15, Birnbaum said, the clinics often turn into impromptu vacation Bible schools. Medical and spiritual services served up together are a powerful attraction, he noted. 

Nursing major Brooke Sanders, a GCU senior, went on a mission trip to Malawi, Africa, in June 2012, and hopes to go to Costa Rica this spring. In Malawi, Sanders learned much more than simply listening to someone’s heartbeat or taking a temperature. 

“You study the demographics and the living conditions of the village, you learn how medicine is different in another country, you view a wider spectrum of global health,” she said. “And the spiritual aspect is so great. The clinic drew hundreds of people. They would travel to get help, and we were able to share Jesus with them.” 

Hannah Walworth, also a senior in the nursing program, was on the Malawi trip, too. She came home with a deep sense of gratitude, and the desire to do more. 

“It puts into perspective just how much we have in America as far as health care goes and how much they are lacking – that inspired me to help,” Walworth said. “The opportunity to go into homes and do triage and then run a clinic, to practice my skills and become more confident talking with patients, I can’t imagine a better experience.” 

Added Sanders: “This would be the most well-rounded, best spring break you could ask for – Christ, nursing, recreation. That’s perfect.” 

The teams’ living quarters in Costa Rica will be modern, but their day-to-day living will be anything but that. The students will travel in canoes on rivers bending through a rainforest that is teeming with howler monkeys, crocodiles and snakes, and their seminar topics will range from suturing to conversational Spanish to salsa dancing. 

The cost per student is estimated at $2,000, including airfare, and ISL has a fundraising arm that can assist students. Visit for details. For more information on the mission trip and how you can help, call Spicer at 639.6153 or email [email protected].

Contact Janie Magruder at 639.8018 or [email protected].

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