I Studied Abroad as a Pre-Med Student and You Should Too

Written by Rose Griffin ’21

As a pre-med student, you may want to study human anatomy and physiology, gain clinical experience speaking with patients, and learn about different healthcare systems. At the same time, you may be interested in traveling to new places, practicing a new language, and getting out of your Wesleyan comfort zone. By studying abroad, you can do both.

I, like many pre-med students, assumed I couldn’t study abroad. I thought there were too many required classes I would have to take at Wesleyan, and, perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t sure how a semester abroad could help me prepare for medical school. Now, reflecting upon my time abroad, I recognize that my worries were entirely misplaced. With a bit of planning, I was able to travel to Copenhagen, Denmark to study human health and disease and explore Europe.

A small tan pug, with a black snout and black ears, is lying on a folded grey blanket with thin white stripes on the floor in the shade against a yellow wall. On the left side, a small tree in a terra cotta sits in the sun.

My host pug, Bella, on the porch of my house in Charlottenlund.

In August 2019, I flew to Copenhagen, Denmark (via Reykjavík, Iceland) to spend four months in an entirely new country, on an entirely new continent. I lived with a family in Charlottenlund, a suburb just outside of the city, a short bike ride to the beach and a shorter bike ride to the train into Copenhagen. My host family– Camilla, Martin, their eleven-year-old daughter Selma, and their pug Bella– felt like home almost immediately. From there, I would start to learn a new language, be forced to face new, scary, and exciting problems, and gain a new perspective on the world from the people around me. Beyond this traditional study abroad experience, my time in Copenhagen also strengthened my interest in medicine and my confidence in pursuing medical school after I graduate from Wesleyan.

The Danish Institute of Study Abroad’s (DIS) Medical Practice and Policy (MPP) program places you in a hospital in Copenhagen where you learn about human health and disease from Danish physicians. This meant that twice a week I would bike from Charlottenlund to Bispebjerg Hospital to analyze lung X-rays, practice endoscopies on a model digestive tract, or learn about gynecology. We learned the tenets of trauma care, the functioning of the cardiovascular system, and how to perform a clinical exam. Every three weeks or so we would have a patient case where we would speak to a patient at the hospital about their symptoms and practice applying what we had learned in lectures about the human health and disease. We spoke to Danish medical students about their experiences and questioned why we couldn’t have been born in Denmark, where we could attend medical school for free as Danish citizens.

a view of Copenhagen from the sixteenth floor. There are houses and buildings clustered together in bottom half of the frame. A canal runs through the middle of the city, the sky is mostly cloudy with some patches of blue sky peeking through. The ocean is in the distance, where there are several wind turbines.

The view from the top floor Panum at the University of Copenhagen Medical School 

 We also had two study tours during the semester. First, we traveled to Kolding and Aarhus, Denmark, two cities west of Copenhagen. In Kolding, we visited a psychiatric hospital and spoke to a psychiatrist about his work and research before exploring an old castle fortress.  In Aarhus, we spoke to a primary care physician about the differences between primary care in Denmark and the United States and toured ARoS, the Aarhus art museum. For our second study tour, we flew to Budapest, Hungary. There, we met physicians at three different hospitals and learned about their practices and the fundamentals of the Hungarian healthcare system. In our free time, we wandered through Buda and Pest, experienced the Széchenyi thermal baths, took a boat ride down the Danube and found the city’s ruin bars. Next, we took a train to Vienna, Austria. We spoke to two surgeons at Vienna General Hospital and observed a gastrointestinal surgery. The next day, we spoke to an obstetrician and a midwife at the hospital and discussed the different practices in pre- and post-natal care between Austria and the United States. We also visited the Albertina and Belvedere art museums, tried world famous hot chocolate, and toured the gardens of Schönbrunn palace before flying back to Copenhagen, exhausted.

Through all our lectures, patient interactions, discussions with doctors, and travelling, it was incredibly valuable to be surrounded by students with such similar interests and goals. We all had varying levels of experience in healthcare settings, had no experience living in Denmark, and supported each other as we studied our ever-growing piles of class notes, practiced clinical skills, and navigated a new country. Now, as we all move towards graduation at our respective colleges and universities, we have kept in touch to discuss our research projects and post-graduation plans.

a woman wearing black bikes past a small lake on a sidewalk lined with greem trees. A large, red stone castle is on the far side of the lake, behind the woman. The sky is blue with streaks of grey clouds.

Kolding, the first town we visited on our study tour. The castle we toured is on the other side of the lake.

I believe it was incredibly important for me to have these experiences abroad. I could have learned about human health and disease in the United States. I could have studied foreign healthcare systems from here, too. However, it was the combination of these studies in a new, uncomfortable place that made this experience so beneficial. Outside of class, I came to learn more about myself as a person. In the face of new and sometimes scary experiences, I learned that pushing past my initial fears was always a risk worth taking. While challenging the preconceived notions I had about the American healthcare system in comparison to those around the world, I was also forced to challenge facets of myself I had held as truths. I gained new confidence in my self-sufficiency, practiced trusting my instincts, and learned from new friends with backgrounds entirely different from my own. I became a better listener and communicator and am now more likely to consider a problem from multiple points of view before attempting to solve it, skills which are incredibly important for anyone interested in healthcare.

It does require planning to be able to study abroad as a pre-med student. You may need to take classes which can count towards meeting your pre-med or major requirements while abroad in order to graduate on time, which could limit your options for study abroad destinations. For example, I took an English course to count towards the year of English required by most medical schools as well as an Epigenetics course to count towards my Molecular Biology and Biochemistry major. Do not let this additional planning intimidate you. Talk to your academic advisor or a study abroad ambassador (like me!) about your academic goals and how these could fit in a semester abroad. It is more than worth it.

Ten young women stand in a group in a hallway which has walls of purple glass which gradually changes color to be pink, then orange in the background. They are smiling at the camera].

Some members of my class and I in “Your Rainbow Panorama” at ARoS, the art museum in Aarhus.

 The sky is dark, but the scene is lit up be yellow and orange lights that reflect off of the river in the foreground . In the middle of the frame is a large building stretching the width of the frame. The outside of the building is lit by yellow lights, the middle section of the building is a dome with a pointed top.

A view of Budapest from a boat of the Danube river

An elegantly landscaped garden of orange, red, and yellow flowers, green plants, and a fountain lead up to a dramatic staircase to a large white palace with a green roof. Several people wander about the garden on gravel paths.

The Belvedere, a palace in Vienna which has been converted into a museum.