Hannah Vallejo channels Spanish immersion experience into better patient care

As senior biology major Hannah Vallejo prepares to embark on a career as a physician's assistant, she is hopeful that her knowledge of Spanish will help her better serve future patients. She recently returned from Spain, where she and eight other students lived with host families while attending classes at the Universitas Castellae.

"In the medical field, so many patients encounter a language barrier," she explains. "Having this experience will allow me to more effectively communicate with those patients so they can receive better quality care."

Vallejo signed up for the immersive Spanish experience to complete her language requirement for graduation. Now that her requirement is fulfilled, she will officially graduate this August.

She says, "I always wanted to study abroad, but after Covid-19 hit, these programs stopped for a while. When things opened up and I still needed a Spanish credit, the Spain trip was the perfect way to accomplish both."

Vallejo traveled to Spain through the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures' Maymester program, a faculty-led two-week study in the city of Valladolid. The program is a combination of language and culturally immersive experiences led by Assistant Professor Ángel M. Rañales.

Each weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., students attended Spanish languages classes taught by professors at the Universitas Castellae, and outside of class they participated in cultural lessons and excursions led by Rañales.

Vallejo and her roommate from the group lived with a host mom, who provided breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. She says the biggest adjustment to living in Spain was the meal schedule, with meals being served at 9 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Also, because the host mom did not speak English, they were immersed in the Spanish language both inside and outside of class.

Apart from the schedule, Vallejo enjoyed her meals in Spain. "There are markets everywhere, with stands selling a different item each day," she explains. "Instead of buying all of your groceries at one time, every day there was a new ingredient for sale. The food was extremely fresh because ingredients were brought in every morning."

However, she missed the convenience of free water in restaurants and other public places. She explains that most Spaniards do not drink water in restaurants, and the cost was typically higher than soda or even wine.

Now that Vallejo is back in the United States, she is applying to master's programs in physician assistant studies and hopes to attend the University of South Carolina or Augusta University next year. In Spain, she experienced firsthand the difficulty of a language barrier and is eager to apply her newfound knowledge to help those in need of medical care.

"I learned what it feels like to not be understood," she says. "I needed allergy medicine while in Spain and could not communicate my needs to the pharmacist. In the United States, I don't think we often think about what that feels like."