Notes to My Younger (Nurse) Self

Josephine Ensign/ foot care at Cross-Over Clinic, Fall 1986, from Freedom House brochure.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with a journalist for the career advice blog site, Glassdoor. The interview was published as “11 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Nurse” (by Eileen Hoenigman Meyer, August 31, 2016). Here are some of my favorite parts of this interview as interpreted and written by Meyer:

“I wish I knew how crazy the healthcare system is. I was young and idealistic. But maybe if I would have known I wouldn’t have chosen this path,” Dr. Ensign says, laughing.

While Dr. Ensign initially had “no intention of teaching,” she’s mostly impressed with her students who she refers to as “change agents.” She even found herself in a former student’s care during an unexpected trip to the ER, the ultimate test of trust for a medical educator and an experience she wrote about in her essay “Medical Maze.” Dr. Ensign expresses optimism about her students’ role in the future of medicine, but also concern for them in a challenging industry. She says, “In school students get a vision of utopia, but they don’t get enough support for how to deal with it when they run into barriers-how to stay true to themselves.”

Notes to my current (Nurse educator) self:

Continue to figure out ways to ‘teach fearlessly’ (upcoming blog post, stay tuned), to improve nursing education away from the production of “functional doers” towards the nurturing of “change agents.” (See previous blog post, “Undoing Nurses as Functional Doers” November 24, 2010.) 

Prepare to Come About: Reflections on Study Abroad Experience

Auckland Sky Tower. Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015

Was I ever that young? This question came back to me earlier this week as our group of twenty-two university students from the U.S. gathered in Auckland to start our month-long study abroad program. For many of them, this is their first trip outside our home country; their first time staying in an international youth hostel; their first time handling the confusion of foreign coins; their first time having spotty to no wi-fi access; their first time being a pedestrian along busy urban streets where cars drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

I remember my own travels outside my passport zone—outside my comfort zone. I try to remember lessons I learned through my travels, lessons that can perhaps inform my teaching here.

My junior year study abroad program was with SEA Semester, out of Woods Hole National Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I had just turned nineteen. Sea Semester is a twelve-week intensive course on sailing, oceanography, and all things sea-related. (Not to be confused with the very different but similarly titled Semester at Sea—which is more of a giant cruise ship/party boat traveling to different port cities around the world.)

We sailed on the Westward, a 125’ Topsail Schooner research vessel, to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. We took nautical science, marine science, and an English literature course on the lore of the sea (including reading Moby Dick). I loved night watch duty on the bowsprit, and was mesmerized by the glittering spray from the phosphorescent algae. I would lean out over the bowsprit and feel myself diving into that flowing luminescence. It was a kind of cleansing, simultaneously a deep relaxation and exhilaration with the white noise of the whooshing bow waves, the cold spray on my face, the briny sea-smell, and the shimmering lights. Obviously, from a nautical safety perspective, I was worthless on bow watch at night.

Near Newfoundland we sailed through huge displays of Northern Lights and followed the migratory paths of blue whales. I was at the helm the day our marine biology professor from Newfoundland spotted a 70’ blue whale off our port bow. “Prepare to come about! Follow that whale!” the Captain yelled. As I turned the ship’s wheel, I felt like yelling back, “Call me Ishmael!”

We spent time in small fishing villages, the houses perched on stilts on the rocky shores of Newfoundland’s deep fjords. The Newfies’ accents were so thick it was like deciphering a foreign language. We traded bottles of rum for cod and moose meat. We hiked up a mountain on the West Coast of Newfoundland to see the MOHO, the mohorovicic discontinuity, the boundary where the Earth’s crust and mantle meet—something only a geologist could get excited about, as it just looked like a thin band of grey mud to us.

Similar to what we are having students do on our New Zealand study abroad program, we were tasked with designing, conducting, and presenting results on a scholarly research project. I remember a fellow student, a psychology major, who designed a questionnaire for all of us to complete, through which he attempted to link personality traits with a propensity to develop sea-sickness. He was so incapacitated by sea-sickness throughout our voyage that we had to help him complete his project. I was fascinated by the inner ear stones–otoliths–of bony fish and spent hours collecting fish from different ocean depths, and dissecting them on our ship’s table at night after dinner.

Did I find my true name through this experience? Did I find my place in the wider world?

The experience deepened my awareness of environmental health and the health of our environment–something we are incorporating into our New Zealand study abroad program. The somewhat limited interactions we had with Newfies, and the more extensive interactions with the land and sea of Newfoundland, have given me a deeper appreciation of people living in more isolated areas of the world. The experience gave me a deeper understanding of books like Annie Proulx’s Shipping News and Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The experience gave me a respect for the power of study abroad programs to broaden young people’s horizons.

International Service-Learning: Take Two

Franz Joseph Glacier, South Island New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

As a teacher, I believe in striving to learn from my mistakes. I also believe in the power of international travel and of service-learning. Done well, they can become life-changing, enriching experiences for students. Done poorly, they feed into the Ugly American tourist syndrome.

What follows is part of my self-reflection on a study abroad program in New Zealand that I helped lead in (our) winter of 2014. My essay, titled “Fossicking the Ten Essentials,” was published June 2015 in Traveler’s Tales/Tales-toGo. I’m about to embark as a leader on a ‘take two’ service-learning study abroad program in New Zealand and hope to have learned from my mistakes. I plan to publish a series of blog posts about our progress (while, of course, protecting student identities).

Fossicking the Ten Essentials

Fossicking: An Australian and New Zealand term for “rummaging” and “prospecting,” and specifically for “picking over the abandoned workings” (of gold, precious stones, and fossils.)

The Ten Essentials: A term coined in the 1930s by The Mountaineers Club in Seattle for a list of necessary equipment to take on hikes. Updated in 2003 to the functional systems approach used as the headings in this essay.

~ ~ ~1. Navigation

Using Google Earth instead of a compass or celestial navigation, my current location is 43.4 degrees South and 170.18 degrees East. High noon. Franz Joseph Glacier, at the foot of snow-capped Aoraki/ Mt. Cook, South Island, New Zealand. I’m sitting at the bottom of a huge rock and ice slide at the terminal face of the glacier where its melt waters run into the Waiho River.

The sun is out and there’s no breeze in this deep canyon dug by the glacier. It’s January 2014, high summer here in the land of the Southern Cross, so it’s warm enough to take off my jacket. There seem to be no bugs—no biting flies—no mosquitoes—and no birds to be seen or heard. Feathery waterfalls are cascading down thousands of feet from the sheer cliffs surrounding the canyon. The smell is elemental, metallic. All surfaces my body touches are gritty, covered with the fine glacial flour that turns the river waters to milk, that turns my skin to alabaster, that crunches lightly between my teeth, tasting of bitter iron.

The rocks at my feet are newly fractured, jagged, split open quartz crystals of dazzling white and pale green. I pick one up and gaze into it like a crystal ball, considering its history—considering my history—and considering how it is we came to meet here at the foot of an ancient glacier. Then I become aware of the sound of rocks skittering down from the top of the pile behind me. I will myself to stay, but I turn so I can keep an eye on the rocks. I’m aware of the folly, knowing I could never run fast enough to escape being buried when the rock and ice pile finally gives way. I’m on the supposedly safe side of the yellow rope barrier put up by now absent park rangers. As the sun heats the valley and the rocks begin to fall more steadily, I decide to walk back out of the canyon.

I retreat from the rock pile because I’m leading a group of fourteen young women, college students from Seattle on a study abroad program. I’m responsible for their health and safety for the three months we’re touring New Zealand. I lead them away from the glacier, back into the primeval temperate rainforest of towering tree ferns and vines. The steady din of cicadas and the occasional tremulant trills of bellbirds and tui envelop us.

When we’ve returned to the forest path, I tell the students I’ll meet them back at the van in a few minutes. I duck down a deserted, quiet side path for a few moments of peace—away from the students’ raw enthusiasm, raucous singing, and selfie-picture-taking in front of every scenic view—including the rock pile of the retreating glacier. As I’ve driven them around the South Island in a mini-van, some have taken to yelling out the van windows “Hey cows!” or “Hey sheep!” to scare the herds and then laugh hysterically. Those are the Biology majors, a fact I find ironic. I was a Biology major thirty-odd years ago. Was I ever that young?

On this study abroad program I’m ostensibly teaching community and environmental health, but what I really want to teach is the value of travel as critical self-discovery. Not the navel-gazing, bathetic sort of self-discovery, but rather the sort that leads to greater knowledge of and tolerance for uncomfortable aspects of ourselves and of people we view as “different” from us. I want to expose the students to the deep satisfaction of getting past being picture-taking tourists, instead, becoming travelers, perhaps even pilgrims walking towards the far horizon to arrive home.

It isn’t working out well. So far, halfway into our trip, it’s more like a case study of how not to lead a study abroad program. We’re traveling around so much it feels like we’re never here, in New Zealand. Staying in ten different cities and villages in as many weeks, passing through and ticking off the have-done-have-been-there bragging list of photo-ops, skydiving, and bungee jumping: I feel more like an adventure tour guide (and an emergency room nurse) than a teacher. It’s not helping that we’re staying in youth hostels full of international backpacking nomads who proudly proclaim they have “done Franz Joseph,” they have “done Milford Sound,” they have “done Rotorua,” as if these are all colonial conquests—places and natives and experiences to be possessed and bragged about. But I signed onto this program late and had little hand in its design, so I’m trying to make the best of it.

As we drive and tour and wander, I ask myself: Do we discover more about ourselves through movement or through rootedness to one place over time?

If, as Lucy R. Lippard contends in her book The Lure of the Land, “space” is passing through coordinates and “place” is pausing to make meaning of the space, does it follow that space is to tourism as place is to travel? And if so, what is essential for the work of transforming space into place, tourism into true travel, into pilgrimage?