Are You Ready for a Gap Year?

Are You Ready for a Gap Year?

Not sure if you’re ready for college? Are you unclear about what kind of nursing field will be best for you? Do you just need some breathing room?

Have you ever thought of taking a gap year?

A gap year is a year off between graduations and degrees. The year gives you time to recharge, reassess, explore, and gain real-world experience. But a gap year isn’t a time to just hang out with friends and get a job around the corner.

A productive gap year should be rich with experiences – both personal and professional, but it takes some planning to make the most of your time. You won’t be committed to classes, clinicals, homework, and labs, but you should have a similarly full schedule.

Assess Your Plans

Why do you want to take a gap year? What do you hope to get out of this time? Don’t make the mistake of just going into a gap year without plans, goals, or aspirations. Think about how you can make the year work for you and seek out available opportunities. Talk with others who have had successful gap years and learn how their plans helped them in their current field. Investigate opportunities for internships, paid work, volunteer work, shadowing, and possibly even traveling and working abroad. The more active you are in your gap year, the more you’ll get out of it.

Defer Your Nursing School Acceptance

Don’t take a gap year without having something lined up when it ends. If you are about to enter nursing school or planning to go on to get an advanced degree, you should still go through the process of applying to school. Once you are accepted, you can decide to defer your entrance which secures a spot. By going through the acceptance process before your gap year, you are also freeing yourself from worrying about details and deadlines during your gap year. If you plan on being abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is making sure you have everything you need from half a world away.

Take Advantage of Medical Opportunities

Nursing students and even pre-nursing students might find a gap year helps clarify their areas of interest if they can work and/or volunteer with a medical organization. You can do work close to home or far away. Even if you are taking the year off to make some money to pay for college and you don’t have a job in a medical field, use any spare time you do have to get involved in your field.

Get Out There and Network

Use your year to network and make connections wherever you go. Just because you are taking a year off doesn’t mean you have to be out of the loop. You may not be connecting with professors and other faculty, but you can be active in a local professional organization. Volunteer for leadership roles, connect with other members, and act on any suggestions they have for achieving your goals for the year.

Expect to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

A gap year should be filled with unfamiliar activities and self-created opportunities. If you feel comfortable in your plans for your gap year, you might not be giving it your best shot. This is the time for you to get out and extend yourself. Meet new people, find out about different nursing careers by shadowing professional nurses or asking for informational interviews. Give lectures on healthy habits at your library, school, or senior center. Start a new meeting group for nurses, nursing students, or other gap year comrades.

Be Honest About Your Attitude

Here the big question – are you self-motivated enough to do what a gap year requires? If you like the structure of class schedules and the ease of finding good opportunities at the career center, then you might not be the best candidate for a gap year. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll have more success knowing what works for you and sticking with it. Some aspects of an unstructured gap year bring about unexpected and wonderful opportunities, but if all that uncertainty makes you uncomfortable, a gap year might be a tough adjustment.

Seriously assess your gap year motivations and your determination to make this opportunity a very specific step toward a goal. Are you ready?

Mentoring Nurses Toward Success

Perhaps you are a newly graduated nurse. Maybe you’re an experienced nurse assuming a new position. Or perhaps you’re looking for a little guidance as you investigate new nursing roles. What all of these situations have in common is a need to learn the ropes of a new position. One effective avenue is mentoring.

Jill is a new RN who had been seeking a nurse position in her home state. With today’s wilting economy, she was unable to find a suitable position, so she ventured into a new territory and accepted a position in her chosen specialty, medical-surgical nursing. She felt fortunate to have found a position at a medical center about 200 miles from her family.

Jill is encountering many new things at once: a new home, new city, new hospital, and new job. Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it?

One of the reasons Jill selected the medical-surgical unit at her new hospital is because her interview with the nurse manager and the unit staff went so well. She found them to be welcoming, caring, friendly, professional, and patient-centered. Also high on her list of positives about the job was the unit’s mentoring program. Jill had the opportunity to interview with a mentor and mentee in the program, and it was this interview that sealed the deal for her decision to accept the position. 

So what exactly is mentoring?

Mentoring is a reciprocal and collaborative learning relationship between two individuals with mutual goals and shared accountability for the success of the relationship. The mentor is the guide, expert, and role model who helps develop a new or less experienced mentee.

In many instances, mentoring is a spontaneous relationship that develops between two people. However, mentoring can also be successful when the mentor and mentee are paired or matched intentionally. This is often the case in health care facilities when a mentee transitions into a new role. The mentee is paired with an experienced nurse to learn a new position and develop in the role.

Mentoring is more than orientation or preceptorship, which may last a few weeks or through a three-month probationary period. The duration isn’t cast in stone; it is an ongoing relationship that will last as long as the mentor and mentee find meaning and value in it.

A mentoring relationship can occur at any phase of an individual’s career, whether a new graduate, an experienced nurse assuming a nurse manager or clinical nurse specialist position, or an established clinician taking on a leadership position as the chairperson of a shared governance council. Some nurses may also become a mentor themselves one day, using their knowledge, wisdom, and experience to provide meaningful learning experiences for a mentee.

Mentoring is a partnership between the mentor as a teacher and the mentee as a learner. As adult learners, mentees are responsible for their own learning and behaviors. As teachers, mentors act as guides or facilitators of learning.   

Each of us has numerous opportunities throughout our lives to be new at something, and it isn’t always a pleasant experience. There is fear of the unknown, uncertain confidence, fear of making a mistake, and just the uncomfortable feeling of not being in control. We’ve all been there and will be there again at some point. In the role of a mentor, it is very helpful to remember what it was like being new to a position or task. It helps to get in the frame of reference of the mentee.

Novice to expert continuum

Patricia Benner, Ph.D., R.N., in her book From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice, says learning new skills requires a progression through stages or levels. These levels are novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert.

When nurses take on new and unfamiliar roles, they often begin at the novice stage. Novices use rules and facts to guide their actions. They adhere to these rules without consideration for the context of the situation. It is difficult for a novice to put all of the parts together and see the whole picture. They are concerned with the tasks at hand and often cannot do more than one thing at a time.

Most novices want to feel and be seen as competent immediately upon taking on a new role. It is uncomfortable knowing one does not have a firm grasp of the position. Mentors and mentees must remember that learning new skills is a process that takes time. Both individuals must be patient during this formative time and realize what’s occurring is normal.

With time and experience, novice nurses continue to experience the real world and progress to the advanced beginner and higher levels of the continuum. Mentors can continue to play a significant role in the mentees’ progression. 


Mentees will become successful in their roles more quickly when they listen actively to what is going on and are willing to soak up as much learning as possible. Mentors are a rich source of knowledge—they’ve been there, done that, and learned the critical pieces to perform successfully. Thus, mentees can gain a tremendous amount from an effective mentoring relationship.

Successful mentoring relationships are built upon trust, openness to self-disclosure, affirmation, and willingness and skill in giving and receiving feedback. Mentoring involves a significant expenditure of time and energy on the part of the mentor and especially the mentee. Living up to promises and commitments to each other is extremely important to the relationship.

Mentees learn to achieve a balance between their own independence and reliance on the mentor. Over time, the independence will most likely dominate and the relationship will change.

After experiencing an effective mentoring relationship, mentees often feel refueled and inspired to make a difference in their practice. Other benefits of mentoring for the mentee include:

  • Increased self-confidence
  • Enhanced leadership skills
  • Accelerated acclimation to the culture of the unit/facility
  • Advancement opportunities
  • Enhanced communication skills, especially with the interdisciplinary team
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved networking ability
  • Political savvy
  • Legal and ethical insight 


Time seems to be the most precious commodity these days. Potential mentors may feel they don’t have the time to spend on a mentoring relationship, especially when they have a full workload themselves. However, the time invested in mentoring a nurse transitioning to a new role is time well spent for the mentor and mentee, as well as the unit and facility. It is a huge contribution to advancing the future of nursing.

Mentors help mentees learn the ropes, their role, the political environment, and the culture of the unit or organization in a formal—yet unstructured—way. They create a warm and accepting environment that allows mentees to control the relationship, while at the same time allowing mentees to be themselves and voice relevant needs and concerns. Mentors are personable, approachable, reasonable, and competent individuals committed to helping mentees achieve the success of which they are capable.

Effective mentors are confident enough in their own knowledge, skills, and successes that they do not perceive mentees or their accomplishments as threatening. They are committed to seeking situations that will benefit the mentees’ development.

Mentors provide their mentees with insights that would otherwise have been gained only through trial and error. They ask a lot of questions—especially “Why?”—which encourages mentees to stop and reflect on situations and potential alternatives. Mentors are good at linking different bits and pieces of their mentees’ lives, such as work and home, thoughts and feelings, successes and failures. They try to look at the bigger picture and the future. Mentors help their mentees grow in their critical-thinking skills and progress along the novice to expert continuum. 

Potential problems with mentoring

Not every relationship is successful. This can be true of a mentoring relationship as well. Sometimes the interpersonal dynamics or the match between mentor and mentee just doesn’t work. One partner might grow faster than the other or in a different direction, and a strain on the relationship may occur.

One common problem is the lack of follow-up and commitment to sustain the relationship. Mentors might overburden the mentee with work and responsibilities and vice versa. Mentees may become a clone of the mentor and lose their individuality. They may also become too dependent on their mentors. An unfavorable incident may occur in which the mentor or mentee feels let down or betrayed. Jealousy and personal or ethical disagreements can also strain the relationship.

There is also the case of toxic mentors who are detrimental to the success of their mentees. Toxic mentors may be unavailable or inaccessible to mentees or may throw the mentees to the wolves to either sink or swim. Toxic mentors may also block the mentees’ progress or criticize them in various non-constructive ways.

Both mentors and mentees can learn from the problems others have encountered in the mentoring relationship. If signs of these problems begin to develop, both individuals have a responsibility to confront the situation and actively plan a resolution or dissolution.

Prior to entering into a mentoring relationship, both parties should agree to a no-fault separation if one or both individuals realize the relationship is not working. 

Mentoring facilitates professional growth

Mentoring has proven to be a successful way of facilitating the professional growth and development of recently graduated nurses and other nurses transitioning to a new role.

The Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN) has long recognized the value of mentoring for nurses in the acute care setting. AMSN has recently evolved its long-standing Nurses Nurturing Nurses (N3) mentoring program into a self-directed format that provides the tools for designing a successful mentoring program of your own, whether you are a mentor, mentee, or a mentoring program coordinator.

The AMSN Mentoring Program is provided on a complimentary basis. The program contains a Mentor Guide, Mentee Guide, Site Coordinator Guide, and an Introduction to Mentoring” article. You may use and customize the information and tools provided in any manner you deem appropriate for your facility or yourself.

Nursing Volunteer Efforts

A nurse is defined not simply by the medical knowledge he or she acquires. Personality traits—ambition, selflessness, courage—also characterize those in the field. Being a medical professional requires a level of giving that those in other occupations may not experience firsthand. There’s a sole focus on the health of others, and a drive to set aside all personal matters for the well-being of complete strangers. For some nurses, the selflessness has taken them to another world, one where they step outside the confines of a hospital setting and into an area devastated by a natural disaster.

Over the past decade, there has been no shortage of disasters: Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami in Japan, to name a few. But through all of these events, one thing has remained certain: nurses and medical professionals act as steadfast caretakers to help victims physically and mentally recover from such disasters. Nurses act as the liaison between the devastation and the happy, healthy life the victims had before—and strive to have again.

These are the stories of the nurses that helped make that happen.

Eugenia Millender
Haiti Earthquake, 2010

Eugenia Millender, Ph.D.(c), M.S., R.N., P.M.H.N.P., C.C.R.N., experienced multiple hurricanes as a Florida resident and Panama native, and knew firsthand what it was like to have such a major natural disaster strike. But even after the earthquake in Haiti, she couldn’t begin to imagine how the quake could drastically change so many lives so quickly.

“As a human being, I couldn’t imagine how a person could one day have their whole family, friends, and neighbors, and the next day, lose them all,” she says. “Day after day, the stories I heard got worse to the point that I just couldn’t watch anymore. I wanted to do more than pray.”

Working full time as a critical care nurse, Millender was no stranger to sad situations. But she had experienced “nothing so massive,” until she traveled to Haiti. And from the moment she got off the plane, it was pure chaos, she says.

“There were thousands of people walking with nowhere to go. Children were walking alone because now they were orphans,” and on the way to the hospital, there were countless bodies on the side of the road, Millender says.

“Once I reached the hospital, there was no orientation, no introductions, no explanation of what to do, how to do it, or when to do it, because there were hundreds of people in the parking lot of the hospital waiting for care,” Millender says. She adds that in the following days, there were many aftershocks, including one that was as high as a 7.0 on the Richter scale.

Millender remembers one patient she had, a 21-year-old woman with an arm that was almost dead and covered with flies and maggots. They didn’t have the equipment for amputation, and even if they did surgery, she would likely die from infection. Millender made many phone calls to help the woman—even contacting hospitals in the United States—but ended up sending her to the Israeli Army on the island since they had more advanced medical equipment. Millender later received good news from the woman’s brother: they amputated her arm and were taking excellent care of her.

After her work in Haiti, Millender moved away from acute care, and into community care and prevention, saying that she wanted to be an agent of change, not of treatment.

“I want to prevent, educate, and empower,” she says. “I want to change policies to improve the health care of the underserved. This is a step I probably would not have taken before the earthquake.”

Millender noted the resilience, perseverance, and hospitality of the Haitian people, saying they cared as much for her as she did them.

“Even when they did not have food or a place to eat, they made sure that I was cared for,” she says. “Caring is a universal language. I did not have to speak French or Creole to show how much I cared.”

Norma Graciela Cuellar
Hurricane Katrina, 2005

For Norma Graciela Cuellar, D.S.N., R.N., F.A.A.N., her biggest moment of assurance for becoming a nurse was in her mother’s last days.

“She said, ‘I know what you do. You are a nurse. I know how much these nurses have done for me and I know what you do now. I am so proud of you,'” Cuellar says. “To this day, no one has ever reassured me that I made the right choice to go into nursing as those words from my mother did.”

Having spent so much of her life along the Gulf Coast, and with family still there when she joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, her heart sank when she heard about the approach of Hurricane Katrina. Cuellar’s family was living in New Orleans and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and her sister owned a condo in Long Beach, Mississippi.

“That Monday, I went to work when I knew the hurricane was hitting. I could not concentrate. People at work acted as if nothing was happening,” she says. “How could I be somewhere safe, being aware that people could actually be dying, fearful of survival?”

Feeling helpless, Cuellar volunteered with the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross. “I was sent to the Cajun Dome in Lafayette, Louisiana, for my assignment,” she says, adding that there were 1,100 people there—mostly from New Orleans—that had to leave their homes.

Cuellar was assigned to be the charge nurse for the medical unit. The volunteers worked 12-hour shifts, but any time nurses left, there was always a chance they wouldn’t come back. “Sometimes, I wanted to beg them to stay because we didn’t know if we would get replacements for them,” she says.

There was one story that stood out in her mind about a man who thought his life was coming to an end. “He was looking out his kitchen window and saw a wave of water coming towards him. This was when the levee broke,” she says. “He couldn’t get out fast enough, and the water was up to his waist.” In tears, the man described how he was trying to get to safety while dead bodies were floating in the water around him.

Cuellar and her staff were so busy, it was often difficult to take the time to hear the victims’ stories, but she says, “the most important thing is to listen. These people wanted to talk and they needed to talk. They needed reassurance.”

Although working with these victims was the hardest thing she had ever done, she recommends that everyone volunteer with disaster victims at least once in their lifetime.

“You will get a different perspective of what is in your community and what the needs of the people were before the disaster hit,” she says. “It is a challenge to yourself and it will make you more aware of who you are and how you will practice in the future.”

Joyce Hyatt
Haiti Earthquake, 2010

When Joyce Hyatt, R.N., M.S., M.S.N., C.N.M., D.N.P., heard about the earthquake in Haiti, she fell asleep with horrific images in her head from the disaster. She woke up the next morning and told her husband that she had to go to Haiti to help the victims.

Born in Jamaica, Hyatt works as an assistant professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). The desire to become a nurse came at an early age for her.

“I was inspired to become a nurse after watching my grandmother, a lay midwife in Jamaica, diligently perform her duties: delivering babies in the community,” Hyatt says. “I knew she was doing something good. She was helping people, she was loved and respected, and I wanted to be like her.”

She had initially planned on becoming an operating room nurse, but when she inadvertently assisted with the birth of a baby in a hospital elevator, she knew that was her calling.

“The overwhelming joy I experienced when the baby cried led me to realize this was my true calling,” she says. The following week, she applied to the University of the West Indies School of Midwifery, where she received her degree in nursing and a certificate in midwifery.

Hyatt had the support of colleagues and her church when she decided to go to Haiti. She had also joined an organization called Midwives for Haiti, a group that was training traditional birth attendants to become skilled midwives and to offer compassionate care to women.

When she went to Haiti, Hyatt worked in a hospital in a village outside Port-au-Prince. Many of the patients, particularly women and children, went to the hospital to deliver their babies or to seek general medical care

She worked mostly with other volunteer midwives, resident nurses, doctors, and medical students from the area who had lost their medical school in the disaster. “Everyone was compassionate, kind, and caring, not only to the patients, but toward each other,” she says.

Many visions of the disaster in Haiti remain with her. Even a few weeks after the earthquake, the effects were still evident: collapsed buildings, tents that housed victims, and organizations providing donated food. “[There were] people with missing limbs, some with burns or other injuries from the earthquake,” she says, adding that there was “an air of sadness” in the affected areas.

Some of the challenges she encountered with patients were ambulating women in labor, promoting position change, and trying to provide comfort in the absence of pain medication. Hyatt also helped in an orphanage during her time in Haiti. And for the first time in over 30 years of being a nurse, she used her CPR/neonatal resuscitation skills.

Despite the challenges, Hyatt noted how volunteering time and resources can truly make a difference to victims of a natural disaster.

“Helping these patients was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The patients were very grateful for the help they received, and most were just grateful to be alive,” she says. “I have become more aware of and more appreciative of what I have.”

Cynthia J. Hickman
Hurricane Katrina, 2005

After hearing about the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina, Cynthia J. Hickman, M.S.N./Ed., B.S.N., R.N., B.C.-C.V.N., C.M., broke into tears.

The news reported that buses were coming to Houston, Texas, with displaced families. After hearing requests for water, clothes, and other sustenance, Hickman wanted to do anything she could to help the victims. But local media outlets said to wait until “a true assessment could be made” of the situation.

“I thought to myself, what kind of assessment was needed with so much human suffering?” she says. “I was scared, afraid, and sad. The worst emotion of all was an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. It was at that point I cried.”


For Hickman, a case manager at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, this was her first time helping victims of a natural disaster. She had always wanted to train, but just never had the time. “When Hurricane Katrina hit, I learned a lot of things fast. I knew I was not going to face people just within my specialty,” she says.

The list of suffering was long: diabetics without insulin, infant dehydration, depression, and more. “The [hospital’s] expectation of available staff and the roles we were to play would change based on instructions from the command station,” Hickman says. “My role as a non-direct care member of the staff was more of ensuring that patient and family needs were met and to assist with medical equipment or community services if patients were hospitalized.”

The stories of the victims brought back distressing memories for Hickman. The faces of the people and children wondering: What just happened? What do I do? Have I lost everything?

“I spoke to a lady who could not find her son, who was with a family member while…the levee collapsed,” she says. “Still today, I don’t know if she ever did.”

Hickman says food hoarding was a frequent occurrence among the victims brought to the George R. Brown Convention Center. “Many had no idea what the following days would hold. Survival by any means possible was the behaviors of many,” she says.

Most of the evacuees she worked with were African American (New Orleans’ population is roughly 67% black). But Hickman notes that the hurricane didn’t show any regard for ethnicity. “Disasters are unplanned and unwanted, but occur,” she adds.

Hickman quickly realized there were lessons to learn before, during, and after a natural disaster. Though she often thinks about what she could have done differently, she believes that anyone in a community can help during a time of disaster.

“The natural disaster reminded me why I became a nurse: to mentor, teach, care, and support those needing a hand,” she says. “My reason for volunteering was very simple. There was a need, and I wanted to meet the need to the best of my ability.”

Marie O. Etienne
Haiti Earthquake, 2010

For Marie O. Etienne, D.N.P., A.R.N.P., P.L.N.C., the earthquake in Haiti was personal.

A native of Port-au-Prince, Etienne was in her office grading papers when a fellow professor came in and asked if she had heard about the quake.

“I was in a state of shock, feeling a sense of urgency to call my family to find out if everyone was safe,” she says. Her family members in Port-au-Prince lost their homes. Another family member had a broken leg. And her cousin, who was attending medical school at the time, died as a result of the earthquake.

Currently a professor at Miami Dade College School of Nursing, Etienne traveled to Haiti a few days after the earthquake struck. There, she served as a nurse practitioner with Project Medishare, where she cared for amputees, children, and families who “felt powerless,” she says.

“I felt so guilty that I was able to walk, breathe, and feel okay while so many people were crying in pain and suffering with either one or two limbs amputated,” Etienne says. “I did everything I could to help the patients and families…giving them hope, hugs, and a little smile to keep them going.”

One patient that stands out in her mind was a 26-year-old woman who was brought in with a GI bleed and elevated blood sugar, barely conscious. She held on to Etienne saying, “Please don’t let me die.” Although they did everything they could, the woman didn’t make it.

“I could not control my tears and emotions, yet we had to remain focused to handle and care for other victims,” she says.

One major lesson that stood out during her time in Haiti was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to prioritize patients’ survival: airway, breathing, circulation (A, B, C). Etienne adds that providing culturally sensitive and compassionate care was essential.

“I had to remain strong, calm, and ready to serve at any given moment,” she says. “During the recovery phase, I learned to appreciate the smallest things in life, because the victims were optimistic even when they had no reason to be hopeful.”

Etienne speaks proudly of Miami Dade, saying that students took part in several vigils and helped raise funds for the victims. She also speaks highly of her colleagues who volunteered in Haiti, having worked with the Haitian American Professionals Coalition (HAPC) and members of the Black Nurses Association (BNA) Miami Chapter both before and after the earthquake. She also worked with the Haitian American Nurses Association (HANA), noting that 30 HANA volunteers, under the leadership of former President Guerna Blot, R.N., M.S.N., M.B.A./H.C.M., O.C.N., arrived to assist with the shortage of Creole translators and provide culturally competent care.

“The medical and nursing team were outstanding in terms of handling the pressure of saving lives,” Etienne says. “When giving care, give it all you’ve got by being caring, compassionate, skillful, and a dedicated nurse.”

In July 2010, Etienne received an Unsung Hero Award in recognition of her efforts in Haiti’s earthquake recovery by the Haitian American Leadership Coalition. She continues to coordinate medical missions to Haiti with the HANA team.

Joining the Peace Corps

The genesis of the United States Peace Corps stems back to 1960 and then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s impromptu speech at the University of Michigan. Kennedy challenged students to support the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. By 1961, then-President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924 and officially established the Peace Corps.

Since then, more than 170,000 volunteers have worked in 136 host countries. According to the Corps’ Web site (, volunteers work and live in rural and urban communities in Asia, Central America, Europe and Africa. Volunteers work on everything from education, health and HIV/ AIDS, business, information technology, agriculture and the environment.

The men and women who join the Peace Corps are as diverse as the work that they do and the countries where they work. Volunteers come from a multitude of races, ethnic backgrounds, ages and religions. They have varying physical abilities and come from different geographical regions and diverse personal backgrounds.

Today, the Peace Corps is more important than ever: In May 2003, the Peace Corps committed 1,000 new volunteers to work on HIV/AIDS related activities, as part of President Bush’s Global AIDS Relief Package.

Volunteer Opportunities in Health

Health care opportunities abound in the Peace Corps for individuals looking for an exciting opportunity to truly make a profound impact in the lives of people all over the world. Peace Corps health volunteers make up 21% of the overall volunteers, and they help improve basic health care at the grass-roots level by focusing on prevention, human capacity building and education. Volunteers work on basic health care issues, such as combating malnutrition and providing safe drinking water.

Volunteering in health and HIV/AIDS allows volunteers to educate and promote the awareness of HIV/AIDS—one of the most serious worldwide threats to public health and development. According to the Peace Corps’ Web site, health care volunteers train youth as peer educators, collaborate with religious leaders to develop appropriate education strategies, provide support to children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and develop programs that provide support to families and communities affected by the disease.

Health Extension

Volunteers in Health Extension raise awareness in communities about the need for health education. Activities include identifying local leaders to teach families about maternal and child health, basic nutrition, or sanitation; setting up training on nutrition, sanitation, or oral rehydration therapy; organizing groups to raise money for needed health care materials; and training of trainers for peer education about AIDS and other STDs.


Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree and an interest in community health demonstrated through volunteer or work experience, or be a registered nurse with a demonstrated interest in community health. Counseling or teaching can also qualify as experience for this program.

Public Health Education

Volunteers in Public Health Education teach public health in classrooms and model methodologies and subjects for primary and secondary school teachers. Projects include undertaking “knowledge, attitude and practice” surveys in communities; assisting clinics or government planning offices in identifying health education needs; devising educational programs to address local health conditions; assisting in marketing of messages aimed at improving local health practices; carrying out epidemiological studies; and acting as backup professionals for other health volunteers.


Public Health Education applicants must have a bachelor’s degree in health education, nutrition, dietetics, or another health-related discipline. Applicants can also have a master’s degree in public health or be a registered nurse certified in public health, midwifery, or be a certified physician’s assistants. Most applicants have also been active in health-related activities on a volunteer basis. Other relevant experience includes expertise in disease surveillance, creative training and adult education techniques, and community entry and survey methods.

Master’s International and Fellows/USA

The Peace Corps offers two advanced education programs to Peace Corps volunteers: Master’s International and Fellows/USA. The Master’s International program allows volunteers to incorporate Peace Corps service into their master’s degree programs at more than 40 colleges and universities. The Fellows/USA program offers former volunteers scholarships or reduced tuition in advanced degree programs at more than 30 participating colleges and universities.

In return for these educational benefits, Fellows commit to working in an underserved community as they pursue their graduate degree. Additionally, Peace Corps volunteers may apply for partial deferment of many loans and up to 15 % cancellation of Perkins loans.

Volunteer Benefits

Serving in the Peace Corps gives volunteers the chance to learn a new language, live in another culture, and develop career and leadership skills. Among financial benefits, the Peace Corps offers a monthly living allowance, comprehensive medical and dental coverage, $6,075 after the completion of three months of training and two years of volunteer service, a reasonably priced health insurance plan available after the completion of volunteer service for up to 18 months, and 24 vacation days per year.

The Peace Corps’ Office of Returned Volunteer Services (RVS) provides career, educational and re-entry related assistance through its 11 regional recruiting offices and its Career Center in Washington, D.C.

Former volunteers also have non-competitive eligibility status for appointments to U.S. government executive branch agencies for one year after their completion of service. This means that former volunteers can be appointed to some federal government positions without competing with the general public.

For more in-depth information on the Peace Corps’ volunteer opportunities, log onto, where you can request a brochure and an application, fill out an online application, find a recruiting agent or a regional recruiting office, and much more.


Peace Corps Stats

Peace Corps officially established: March 1, 1961

Total number of volunteers and trainees to date: 170,000

Total number of countries served: 136

Current number of volunteers and trainees: 6,678

Volunteer breakdown:

32% in education

21% in health

18% in environment

14% in business

9% in agriculture

7% other

Gender: 61% female, 39% male

Marital status: 91% single, 9% married

People of color: 15% of Peace Corps volunteers

Age: 28 years old (average), 25 years old (median)

Volunteers over age 50: 6% (oldest volunteer is 84)

Education: 86% have undergraduate degrees, 12% have graduate studies/degrees

Current number of countries served: 69

Fiscal year 2003 budget: $295 million

A Time to Give

“It’s all about the people.” That’s what so many health care professionals say when asked about their career choices. Regardless of specialty-physician, nurse and, of course, allied health practitioner-the majority of providers are there to assist their patients on a journey back to a healthy life. For some, however, it’s more than just a job. Rather, it is a calling that can take them to exotic locales and challenging endeavors as humanitarians.

A Worldwide Need

For more than a decade, news about cultural, ethnic and military conflicts has ruled the airwaves and newspapers. In Rwanda, ethnic tribes were at war, displacing thousands of people. In Kosovo and Serbia, civil war raged for years leaving countless civilians maimed and disabled. More recently, battles in Iraq and Afghanistan have torn apart communities’ health care structures. This has been particularly detrimental to regions that had very few services in the first place.

And that’s just the result of manmade disasters. There have been devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons and even volcanic eruptions. Catastrophic events such as these leave their imprints on developing nations’ efforts to sustain and advance their medical support systems. That’s why health care volunteers who are willing to lend a hand have become an invaluable commodity abroad.

Since World War II, non-government organizations (NGOs) have been addressing the ongoing needs of developing countries around the globe. Some specialize in supplying equipment, medications and creating the necessary infrastructure. Others, like the American Red Cross or the Red Crescent, respond immediately following a disaster, such as the earthquake in Bam, Iran, late last year. Yet there are still other NGOs that arrange for health care professionals to volunteer their expertise.

Humanitarian opportunities are typically divided into two categories. The first, and perhaps most common, is the short-term assignment. These stints can last from 14 days to a few weeks or even a couple of months. Many times, volunteers are sent to provide clinical support to a community after a specific event, such as a hurricane. Short-term jobs aren’t regulated to just disaster response, however. An area’s dominant medical needs dictate what type of humanitarian aid is required. For example, a physical therapist (PT) may be called in to help children who suffer from congenital birth defects. Or a radiologic technologist (RT) may be needed to operate and instruct others about newly delivered ultrasound equipment. There are also times when volunteers simply play second string; they provide relief to the full-time staff-allowing them to step away to catch their breath.

These limited positions are usually unpaid. In fact, depending on the NGO specifics, volunteers might be expected to pay their own travel and living expenses. Oftentimes trips are sponsored by religious organizations or even employers that provide stipends to help alleviate costs. Each venture is different.

The long-term volunteer assignments traditionally have been more of a consulting expedition. Organizations like the Peace Corps send experts abroad for months or years at a time, commonly as paid employees. These individuals are sent to educate, update and train the local health care staff so they can eventually become autonomous, which was the case for both Ans Timmerman, PharmD, and Jessica Sanchez, CO, CP, an orthotist with Arimed Inc., based in New York.

Dispensing Knowledge

Originally from Belgium, Timmerman is the global technical advisor in the pharmaceuticals and medical logistics health unit for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). She’s currently stationed in Nairobi, Kenya, where she develops and approves medication dispensing guidelines and protocols for the NGO. “I represent the IRC on every issue that deals with drug management,” she explains.enough.”

Timmerman was introduced to humanitarianism through word of mouth, one of the most effective and prominent forms of NGO promotion for potential volunteering. After she received her graduate degree in 1999, Timmerman took some time off to travel through Asia. Nepal was one of her destinations because a friend was working for a French NGO there. Timmerman’s time in Nepal allowed her a first-hand glimpse into an international assistance program. “Before that, I had no idea what humanitarian aid organizations did. I was surprised at how professional things looked. At that point, I knew it was an option for me professionally.

“When I returned to Belgium,” she continues, “I found myself at a point of choosing between a community and hospital pharmacist, both of which are worthwhile jobs. But for me, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be doing enough. The impact was limited.”

After some research, Timmerman realized her skill set was applicable to working with humanitarian aid organizations, especially since she is bilingual in French and English. “In Africa, most people speak English and French or maybe Portuguese,” she notes.

Her first assignment was in Tanzania where she assisted the program coordinator by distributing medications. It didn’t take her long to realize there was very little established protocol and even fewer long-term training plans in place for this aspect of delivery. “At the time, the drug dispensing was being done by refugees,” she explains. “They were very neglected in terms of ongoing training.”

Relying on her previous graduate student experience of teaching pharmacology undergraduates, Timmerman took on the task of creating a two-day seminar. Not only did it turn out well for the Tanzanian IRC program, but it also helped Timmerman promote her career within the organization. First, she had to secure funding from New York headquarters. Then she followed it up with a report detailing the results. The positive report prompted a request for Timmerman to present a proposal to set up similar training sessions elsewhere.

“I was asked to do a presentation at the annual health coordinators’ conference about the drug management training,” she explains. “They thought it could be applied to other field programs. Tanzania was just the first unit to recruit a pharmacist.”

Since then, Timmerman has worked in Eastern and Western Congo, Thailand and, now, Kenya. “I was recently able to get an update on the Tanzanian project and they are still working with the local pharmacists.”

Lending a Hand

While Timmerman turned a volunteer position into a career choice, Sanchez’s time abroad was more of a short-term task. As an orthotist and prosthetist, Sanchez regularly works with orthopedic surgeons, one of whom was associated with A Leg to Stand On (ALTSO), a New York-based NGO that works with disabled children around the world. “When he brought it up to me, I thought why not? It was a privilege and not a gray area decision,” she retells.

Sanchez quickly signed on and after an ALTSO orientation she was headed to India. Her team was charged with modernizing local facilities and instructing its specialists. She explains, “Part of our mission was to design an operating prosthetics manufacturing facility. Prosthetics were nearly nonexistent there or you saw a five-year-old wearing an adult-size product. Some items were made out of plastics that aren’t even being used anymore.”

Despite the rudimentary standards, Sanchez was impressed with the abilities of the local specialists. “These people were making braces by hand,” she says. “Their skill level was amazing because they had the knowledge to do it with so little resources, and I was astounded by the lack of resources and equipment.”

Additionally, the ALTSO mission started the process of fitting 10 children for artificial limbs. Although general health conditions in Indian cities and urban areas have made great strides during the past 10 to 15 years, rural communities still lag very far behind. These are also areas that are more severely affected when disaster strikes and are slower to recover.

In Gujarat, where Sanchez visited, the village was still trying to clean up after an earthquake in January 2001. Children had lost limbs from coming in contact with downed, live power lines. “The children run around without shoes and step on a line. The current goes into one limb and out another, and the exiting limb burns off,” Sanchez states. “There were also a lot of amputations and congenital birth defects.”

The manufacturing process continues now in the United States through Sanchez’s employer, Arimed. In fact, the company is sponsoring the local experts to fly to New York to observe the final steps. In the meantime, ALTSO plans for a manufacturing facility in India continue to move forward. “We’re helping them learn how to do more and do it modernly so we don’t need to be present,” comments Sanchez.

Unforeseen Benefits

Whenever you give of yourself, personally or professionally, those efforts are often returned in full with feelings of satisfaction. “It changed how I look at things,” notes Sanchez. “I had come to expect and demand only the best, but now I’ve learned that sometimes two different roads lead to the same place. It’s changed my view of life and work.”

“Humanitarian work is more likely a public health position, rather than the individual health care they’re probably used to administering,” advises Timmerman. “NGOs need people who can think in terms of what is beneficial for the majority of the population they’re serving.”

But there’s more to be gained by volunteering than merely indulging altruism. Indeed, it poses unique and challenging professional opportunities. For one thing, the change of environment and different equipment forces practitioners to be quick learners and test their confidence in their abilities. Limited resources push individuals to get creative and find ways to carry out tasks by thinking outside of the norm.

There are also moments for volunteers to stretch their managerial wings by delegating, guiding and training others within a program or the local people themselves. All of these experiences can easily carry over into the work environment. Employers are often impressed when therapists and techs take the initiative to develop new skills.

And there are plenty of opportunities for allied health professionals. NGOs have a virtually constant call out to medical professionals. In fact, the International Medical Volunteers Association (IMVA) states that virtually every medical profession is needed in developing countries.

“In the months following a crisis, humanitarian agencies like American Rescue Committee (ARC) provide a basic level of care, simply helping people stay alive. But in the long term, as these people return home, many will need physical and occupational therapy as well as appropriate skills training,” explains Martha Naegeli, ARC spokesperson. “This is especially true in conflict regions where civilians are the target of military activity, in places like Liberia, Sudan and the Congo. Without treatment, the injuries they suffer can rob them of their mobility, their livelihood and their will to survive.”

A Unique Perspective

Finding a volunteer position is a lot like a job search. Specifically, you have to investigate the NGO before making a commitment because a good match can make all the difference between a positive and less-than-positive experience. Interestingly, it’s one’s background as much as his or her skill set that impresses NGOs. Working within diverse communities in the United States can prepare people for other multicultural encounters. “You should be open-minded and have an interest in other cultures and have respect for them,” notes Timmerman.

Being a minority yourself, however, may be a factor in your favor. Just like in American ethnic neighborhoods, patients and clients abroad tend to have more trust and compliance with providers who look like them. “There are more minorities being affected by diabetes, breast cancer and multiple sclerosis,” adds Sanchez. “Patients want to be with someone who they are comfortable with.”

Of course, practitioners who are multilingual are exceptionally valuable. Although most international missions provide interpreters for medical personnel, there’s always a chance for misinterpretation or incomplete translations. This is particularly important when it comes to medications and specific instructions. Therefore, a multilingual clinician who understands both the language and medical jargon is well suited for international humanitarian positions.

Still, there are occasional episodes in which race or gender can be a momentary obstacle. For example, being a Latina was less of an issue for Sanchez’s trip to India than her gender. She explains, “It’s a very traditional system there, and they don’t typically see other professional women in the rural areas. They thought I was a secretary or an assistant. By the third day, however, they finally grasped it.

“The same scenario translates here in the United States, except I finder it harder to be a Latina here,” she continues. “This industry is still about 90% Caucasian males. However, there is a change underway. There are a lot more women entering orthotics and prosthetics, but I have yet to run into another Latina.”

Keeping It Close to Home

Do you want to get involved but aren’t in a position to leave the country? You don’t necessarily have to pack your bags and board an international flight in order to volunteer. In fact, there are opportunities virtually around every corner. School districts, private athletic associations and senior centers are just a few suggestions where people could benefit from the time and expertise of PTs, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and athletic trainers.

Neither must all volunteer positions be clinically based in order for them to be effective professionally. Use the opportunity to explore other arenas, such as fundraising or marketing. When employers see they have a talented practitioner who also knows about budgets, teamwork and promotion, then your marketability automatically jumps up a few notches. Although these skills might not be immediately applicable in the clinical environment, you’re displaying an open attitude and aptitude to take on challenges outside of your “normal” realm. To employers, that’s an intangible quality that makes for a vital employee.

Tips for Volunteering

Research the issues that are important to you and reach out to a group that works toward those same issues.

• Find something new to learn.

• Combine volunteering with goal objectives. If you have a certain goal set, find an organization that will help you reach it.

• Don’t overcommit yourself.

• Prepare for a possible interview. You may be asked to describe your qualifications and background.