Colombian internship immerses students in academics, culture

Colombia Internship-group at Cerro de Montserrate-By Steve Nakata, Student Affairs

PULLMAN, Wash. – Six Washington State University students spent four weeks in Colombia this summer helping sick animals like turtles and ocelots, and developing software that will aid police working with bomb-sniffing dogs.

It was part of a new internship created by WSU’s Team Mentoring Program (TMP) led by the Office of Multicultural Student Services in the Division of Student Affairs.

TMP provides a combination of workshops, social events, panel discussions and research opportunities to underrepresented minority students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math.

WSU student Elizabeth Flume holds owl receiving help at Universidad Nacional de Colombia
WSU student Elizabeth Flume holds owl receiving help at Universidad Nacional de Colombia

WSU students in the health sciences were the first to complete an internship at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) in Bogotá. The internship stems from a memorandum of understanding established between WSU and UNAL in 2014, a partnership spearheaded by J. Manuel Acevedo, director of Multicultural Student Services, and Chuck Pezeshki, professor in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture.

Acevedo, born and raised in Colombia, thought UNAL would be an excellent place for WSU students to learn more about their chosen fields, meet new professionals and experience a new culture.

“The TMP coordinating committee wanted to create a study abroad component that provides students an opportunity to gain significant professional and personal development that will help them in graduate school or in the workforce,” Acevedo said.  “I have good contacts at UNAL that were key to making it happen.”

One of those contacts is Manuel Rojas, professor in UNAL’s School of Veterinary Medicine and a WSU adjunct professor.

Rojas took the internship goals developed by the TMP coordinating committee and led the implementation of two academic tracks at UNAL. Three of the students focused on veterinary medicine, the other three immersed themselves in engineering.

Different cultures, different perspectives

This ocelot had an MRI to examine protruding lumbar discs causing spinal cord pressure and weak hind legs. L to R: UNAL veterinarian and graduate student Manuel Suarez, WSU student Elizabeth Flume, Dr. Christian Gomez, and WSU student Marissa Leupold.
This ocelot had an MRI to examine protruding lumbar discs causing spinal cord pressure and weak hind legs. L to R: UNAL veterinarian and graduate student Manuel Suarez, WSU student Elizabeth Flume, Christine Nishimoto, Dr. Christian Gomez, and WSU student Marissa Leupold.

The veterinary medicine students gained hands-on clinical experience at UNAL’s teaching animal hospital — considered the best veterinary hospital in the country. Organizers sought to familiarize them with the practice of veterinary medicine in a developing country, teach them how to perform simple procedures, and allow them to practice clinical problem-solving skills.

“It’s an eye-opening experience for the students to see that people handle and treat animals differently around the world,” said Kay Brothers, clinical professor in WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and member of the TMP coordinating committee.

Brothers said the goals of the internship were intentionally designed to address areas that are important in the WSU veterinary medicine curriculum and the profession in general.

Microbiology major Christine Nishimoto, a Hawaii native who graduated from WSU in May, said the internship made her more confident that veterinary medicine is the right career for her. It taught her the importance of good communication, networking and flexibility.

Christine Nishimoto with a patient at UNAL’s School of Veterinary Medicine
Christine Nishimoto with a patient at UNAL’s School of Veterinary Medicine

“People are not rigid and neither is the world,” said Nishimoto. “I learned that there is a certain give and take in any situation, and as professionals we need to understand that and learn to accommodate when certain situations arise.”

Reading a dog’s mind

While Nishimoto and fellow students were busy examining and treating animals, Joshua Shepherd, a junior from Vancouver, Wash., majoring in computer science, met with his engineering group in another part of the large campus.

His group was tasked with figuring out how to build an electroencephalogram (EEG) wireless device for land mine detection dogs. The device fits on a dog’s head like a cap. The ultimate goal was to write a software program for the cap that, in the words of Pezeshki, reads a dog’s mind while it is searching for land mines. When a dog detects a bomb, it triggers a special response in its brain. A program is needed that can relay that response to the police.

“It was a very large undertaking and we had a relatively short amount of time,” said Shepherd. “We learned how to set realistic goals, how to get things accomplished through collaboration, and we got exposed to a lot of new programming libraries that will be useful to us in the future.”

Shepherd’s group didn’t make as much progress on their project as they hoped, but Pezeshki believes the journey is just as important as the end product.

“The best educational experiences allow students the space to navigate their environments on their own and bump up against the wall on occasion,” he said. “In the process, they develop agency which is the ability to solve problems on their own. Employers want people with agency.”

Shepherd and his team will have the opportunity to continue working on the EEG project this fall when Rojas returns to WSU for a sabbatical.

Becoming global citizens

Acevedo, Brothers and Pezeshki are quick to point out that the internship wasn’t just about academics and research.

While some of the students have been outside of the United States, none were familiar with Colombia and its customs prior to the trip. Shepherd said television shows and movies shaped the images he had about the country — a jungle-filled, dangerous and poor nation.

“I hate to admit this, but my impression was that Colombia isn’t a very civilized country,” he said. “While it does have its areas of poverty, it is a lot nicer than I expected — it was fantastic!”

It is these kinds of revelations that Acevedo had hoped the students would have when he envisioned the internship program. They had opportunities to visit historical sites, try traditional foods, learn Spanish, and mingle with the locals.

More to come

When Acevedo viewed the PowerPoint presentations the students created at the end of their internship, he knew all the learning outcomes he and the committee established months ago had been met. By all accounts the trip was a great success.

In keeping with the spirit of the memorandum of understanding, initial talks are already underway to bring UNAL students to the WSU campus for a similar experience.

At the same time, the TMP partners consisting of MSS and the Colleges of Engineering and Architecture, Arts and Sciences, Veterinary Medicine, and Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, have expressed interest in sending another group of WSU students to Colombia next summer. If it happens, UNAL will be ready.

“Our students made a big impact on them,” said Acevedo. “They found them to be engaged, responsible, respectful and avid learners.”


Media Contacts:

  • Manuel Acevedo, director, Multicultural Student Services, 509-335-1071,
  • Steve Nakata, public relations communications coordinator, Student Affairs, 509-335-1774,

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