Overcoming Cultural, Language, and Ethnic Barriers as an International Medical Student

Angela Anim
Published on Nov 25, 2019. Updated on Invalid date.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to attend medical school in another country? Well, you’ve come to the right place! Angela, a U.S. citizen, discusses her experiences attending a medical school in Mexico.

After attending a Caribbean medical school and experiencing a devastating hurricane there, I decided to attend Universidad de Autonoma Guadalajara which in English translates to the University of Guadalajara Medical School. I figured it would be an awesome opportunity to learn a language, become more culturally aware for the ease of coming back to the U.S., and last but not least, for the affordable tuition. 

Logistics & linguistics

On the flight to my new medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, I ran through my mental checklist: student visa: check. I packed everything I would need for school: check. Financial aid completed: check. After going through the checklist, it hit me (like Macaulay Culkin in the movie “Home Alone” when he realized he was on the wrong plane) that I did not know a word of Spanish! Luckily, all of my classes were in English, but I looked at it as an opportunity to learn a new language, which was exciting!

After being in Mexico for about a month, the reality of this decision started to sink in. It definitely was not easy balancing medical school along with learning another language. While excelling in my medical curriculum, I only knew the basics of Spanish for the first 9 months.

International student challenges 

I had traveled quite a bit throughout the Caribbean, Africa and some of Europe, but nothing prepared me for the challenges that I faced being an international medical student in Mexico. Not only was I thrust into a completely different language and culture, I also had to battle the negative stereotypes that international medical graduates (IMG) often deal with. Even here in Mexico, there is a bit of discrimination against the IMGs. My school has two programs, one for the citizens of Mexico and the other for international students. Our tuition is substantially higher than the tuition of the national program, but from my perspective, there is a discrepancy in terms of benefits.

Eye-opening clinical experiences 

There are also some great experiences I have had here in Guadalajara that I would not have had in the US. Recently, there was news of a Honduran immigrant caravan heading to the U.S. During their journey they stopped at a shelter where I happened to be a volunteer. I able to gain some well-rounded medical experience including surgery, prenatal care, pediatrics, and prescribing medication, but I also learned of the immigrants' terrifying experiences on the trek to the shelter. Some had tried to make it as stowaways on trains, fell off, and now needed limbs amputated. Others had chronic conditions like diabetes for which they’d never had treatment and were now on the brink of death. The most difficult thing of all was caring for the traumatized children who witnessed their parents get brutalized in front of them. Interacting with and providing care to the individuals in this group was an incredibly rewarding experience, but heartbreaking.

New social dynamics

Another challenge that I did not anticipate was Mexico's social climate. Fitting into the Mexican culture was tricky as a young black woman. There are extremely few black people in Mexico and, no matter where I go, people tend to stare. They usually tell me “You are the first black person I’ve ever seen, and could I please take a picture with you?” I laugh and say, “Sure, why not?” 

In America, we have three social classes (poor, middle class, and upper class), but in Mexico, there are basically two (the poor and the rich). As I talked to other expats and exchange students, I always asked what they thought about Mexican society and they would say that there are two Mexicos. There was poor Mexico, the one that most Americans envisioned, and there was a rich Mexico, which most Americans cannot even fathom because the wealth is far beyond their imaginations. The two did not mix at all—it was like some type of unwritten law. 

For me, being a black American and a student, living in an upscale neighborhood, but having friends from both social classes, I was in some type of purgatory between the social classes. I lived with my host family for the first six months; they were extremely wealthy and lived in what I called “the Beverly Hills of Guadalajara.” When they would have dinner parties or have company over, their friends were very confused about me. They would ask what social class I was from, and if I was from some prestigious American family. I would answer, “No, I’m just a simple medical student who has come to Mexico hoping to make a difference.”

Looking ahead

Many foreigners spend most of their time in Mexico in upscale neighborhoods that mirror their western normalcy, but not me; I’ve found beauty in the slums and love within the less fortunate. I have countless plans for these forgotten people that I have grown to love. Oftentimes when having a bad day, my biggest encouragement would come from the older women selling oranges on the side of the road who would say, “Morena hermosa, todo estará bien”("Beautiful brown girl, everything will be alright"). Upon graduation I plan to return to Mexico periodically and reciprocate the love that the wonderful people have shown me by opening up schools for the poor and doing medical missions trips to provide them with adequate health care.   

About Angela

Angela is originally from Hampton, Virginia and a 2nd year medical student at the University of Guadalajara. In her spare time, she likes to go to museums, exercise and cook.  

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