Bronwyn recently returned from her ERASMUS+ placement in Odense, Denmark. Here she shares her learning and personal experiences, and encourages other student nurses to also apply to the scheme and work in a nursing placement abroad.
What inspired you to apply for an ERASMUS placement?
ERASMUS+ is a funded student exchange programme that enables students to complete a portion of their degree within a European partner country, from a few months to a full year. I discovered the programme during my 1st-year fresher’s week and by the time our ERASMUS lead, Sheila Cunningham, came to talk to us at the end of the year, I had made up my mind to go. What appealed to me most about this programme was that I would be able to fully immerse myself in a new culture while I worked within my chosen field of nursing. Personally, I love to learn about new cultures and see how people do things in other parts of the world. There is so much we can learn from each other, and if I could bring just one thing back with me then I would consider it a successful trip.
When I found out that Denmark was an option for exchange, I knew there was no other country for me. This was my chance to fulfill an ambition I have had since my brief visit to the country just over 10 years ago! I had become enchanted by the culture and the country during my short visit all that time ago and swore I would return to live and work in there, so I was not going to let this opportunity slip through my fingers.
Tell us about your learning and practice experiences as a student nurse in Denmark
My placement in Denmark was in a community setting within the city of Odense were a number of residents with a variety of enduring mental health difficulties reside, aged between 18 to 36. During their stay residents received guidance and support for up to 3 years where they learn to manage their various conditions and work towards independent lives within their communities. I have not come across anything quite like this service in the UK, but I hope this is due more to my limited experience rather than this kind of service not being available. The teams supporting these residents are diverse and included nurses, occupational therapists, social workers and ‘pedagogoue’ (professionals that are something between a teacher, social worker and support specialist).
During my time in this placement, I was able to observe patient lead care that appeared to be wholly directed and shaped by the residents, and planned collaboratively with staff to enable the support and therapy residents had chosen, whilst educating them on their choices. The entire point of this service is to enable residents to make their own choices, manage the results of these choices and progress to a point that they felt confident and able to do this on their own once they left the service.
I was introduced to new therapeutic interventions that I have not seen practiced in the UK and felt that they would most definitely help service users understand the professional decision-making process and empower them to make informed decisions about their care. I was also required to employ a range of communication techniques, as English is obviously not the first language of the Danes, and found my previous TEFL course very useful in helping residents and staff communicate their thoughts with me and vice versa. But I quickly discovered that verbal messages were only a small part of understanding a message, which is so easily taken for granted when we are immersed in our native languages. I became quite adept at reading the body language of those around me and often found that I had understood a conversation without understanding the language used. I was also introduced to the Danish healthcare system and came to understand that on the surface our two systems looked very similar there are, in fact, huge disparities between how things are done.
Talking with current Danish nursing students and staff, I also discovered that they train quite differently to us. They do not train in separate fields as we do, which I think has a number of benefits as well as disadvantages. Their course structure is quite different to our own and is spread over three and a half years. They are also ‘paid’ to attend university, as is every other university student… Imagine my shock to discover this bit of news!
Did you face any challenges during your ERASMUS placement, if so what helped you to overcome them?
I am a single mother with two teenage children. My 18-year-old son stayed at home with my flatmate keeping an eye on him and my 15-year-old daughter lives with her dad, so I felt confident that they were safe and cared for. This didn’t stop me from worrying about being so far away from them, but we had very regular video calls together and kept each other updated with the latest family news. I did, however, have a sudden crisis involving my son near the end of my placement which almost brought my trip to a very abrupt end… but he insisted that I complete my placement. This was possibly one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made as it went against all of my mothering instincts, but, what kind of mental health nurse would I be if I couldn’t empower my own sons’ decisions.
I was very fortunate to have been introduced to a ‘buddy’ before my arrival who was a phenomenal source of support. She helped me navigate my way around the city on arrival and helped me to access my bicycle, which I used almost daily. I am a person that enjoys their own company and finds the quiet an escape, so I did not feel isolated or homesick as many do. Instead, I used the time to reflect on my personal and professional journey which has given me a whole new appreciation for where I am in my life and helped to solidify where I want to go in future. I was also very fortunate to be placed with a supportive mentor and was made to feel welcome and included in the team from my first day. I was given ample opportunity to explore and reflect on what I had learned throughout my placement. I think this warmth really helped me to fully embrace the culture and encouraged me to explore it further which, in my opinion, made a huge impact on the success of my trip.
How has your experience informed your personal development?
I would be remiss not to take my ERASMUS experience with me as I begin my professional journey. There are things I have learned, personally and professionally, that I could never have learned in the UK and fully intend to utilise these lessons moving forward. If I could move to Denmark today I would! The only thing stopping me is my grasp of the language… As much as I tried, I struggled to get my tongue around the shape of the words and would not do my service users justice if I could not conquer the language barrier. This said, if my placement offered me a job despite the language barrier, I would grab it with both hands in a heartbeat. I am definitely looking to explore my options to further my clinical and life skills which I think includes periods working on other countries.
How did you continue to maintain your connections whilst away?
We are so fortunate to be living in a time where connecting is as easy as switching on a light. I used a blog to share my experiences with my link lecturer and other faculty members that wanted to see what I had been up to. My personal and professional development lecturers skyped me into group meetings and WhatsApp kept me connected to my family and friends.
Reflecting on your placement experience, would you do anything differently if you were to do it again?
I went to Denmark on a VERY tight budget of 4,000.00 Kroner (£364). I saved money by using my bike to travel and lived on a very restricted diet as I found food to be a little costly there which didn’t leave anything spare for playtime, although there are lots of free things you can enjoy. I think the one thing I would have changed is my budget as it would have been nice to explore a little more of the city and wider country during my stay.
What would you advise to fellow student nurses thinking about applying for an Erasmus placement?
The only advice I could give any student thinking about participating in the ERASMUS program is simply DO IT. You will feel nervous and let the daily challenges of life waver your resolve, but it is an experience you may never get a chance to do again. If you are offered a place, grab hold of it with both hands, and do not let it go. You will not regret it.