“I’m very proud that I traveled by myself. I almost can’t believe I did this! It’s a little scary, too...”
- Excerpt from my journal entry on Monday, February 7th, 2005, the first day of my dietetic internship rotation in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
Preparing to write a blog entry for Practice
was the perfect reason to look back at the journal I kept during my international dietetic rotation in Mexico. I was able to laugh at some of my musings (for example, I wrote several lengthy paragraphs wondering how the “one-cheek kiss greeting” I observed might be received in a Canadian workplace). The journal also helped me remember how it felt to be new to the dietetic profession.
As a dietetic intern I knew that for my elective I wanted an international experience. I was excited by the idea of what dietetics might look like outside of Canada. I pursued this by emailing or calling every dietitian I’d ever met - and every dietitian they’d ever met - and dietitians I’d looked up online in various countries. Finally, through Marlene Wyatt of Dietitians of Canada, I found Dra. Elizabeth Solis in Mexico!
Re-living that time led me to uncover three lessons
that I learned from my time in Mexico that still resonate with me today.
#1 The first lesson is: Keep a journal! (And then read it).
I think my journal is the best souvenir that I brought home with me from Mexico. As clearly as I recall my time there and can share anecdotes about the highlights, it was refreshing to step out of the highlight reel and delve into the details. The journal captured so much more.
Journalling is a habit I picked up in grade 6 and I’ve been going strong ever since. However, I rarely return to what I’ve written. This time, going back allowed me to remember how I felt at that time; what a personal stretch it was for me to pick up and go to Mexico for one full month and how my confidence grew from that first journal entry right through to the last.
I was filled with possibilities by the time I was ready to return home:
“There is so much to think about when it comes to my career … when will I finish my certificate in food security?
[I finished the certificate in 2006]. Will I do a Master’s at some point?
[I completed my MHSc in 2008]. What type of work would a dietitian do with the Pan American Health Organization?”
[I’m still thinking about this one!].
- Excerpt from my journal entry on Thursday, March 4th, 2005, the last day of my dietetic internship rotation in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
Considering that I pursued a dietetic rotation in Mexico it would be reasonable to assume that I speak Spanish; Mexico’s official first language.
Well, let’s say that my undergrad, introductory Spanish courses perhaps gave me an inflated sense of my language abilities.
#2 The second lesson is
: Accept that not being good at something isn’t, in and of itself, a reason to not do it anyway.
Within about three days of arriving in Monterrey it was clear to me that I had grossly overestimated my Spanish language skills. That was also about the time when I realized that, no, I would not return to Toronto as a bilingual person.
My preceptor and several of her colleagues were fluent in English. Others spoke varying amounts of English and we could usually meet each other half way.
The toughest times were being in a room with colleagues or friends who only spoke Spanish. They would be chatting away with each other while I tried to piece together the gist of the conversation. It was tempting to just use the “smile and nod” trick, but really, could I pull that off for an entire month? Did I even want to use that approach after the effort I had put in to getting to Mexico in the first place?
I decided to choose my moments and just delve into the discussions – imperfect Spanish and all. I also found that tours and demonstrations opened up opportunities for more visual communication to complement the English and Spanish verbal communication. It was amazing how much could be shared by combining communication methods!
Reading my journal entries about the “language barrier” that I encountered, I noticed that the hardest part wasn’t figuring out how to conjugate a verb correctly or to recall the Spanish word for “internship”. The real challenge was accepting the idea that just because it wasn’t going to be perfect didn’t mean that I shouldn’t go for it anyway. As a student and then as an intern I was set in the mode of constantly being evaluated and it was scary to think that I could put my patchy language skills out in the open for everyone to hear!
Simply, I learned that not being good at something isn’t enough of a reason to not do it anyway!
As a visitor in Monterrey I engaged in many conversations about food, nutrition and healthcare in Ontario and Canada.
The colleagues I met were interested in dietetics in Canada – the history of the profession, how to enter the profession, workplace settings and promising future opportunities for Canadian dietitians. However, I found that for the most part there was much greater interest in my personal experience of being a dietetic intern in Canada.
#3 The third lesson is
: The personal-professional story is often what helps to make connections...
The conversations often focused on what my internship entailed, how I was finding it so far, how I’d arrived at this point and what I might do after internship. I, too, was interested in how the colleagues I met had chosen to study food and nutrition and what their plans were for the future. Our stories were completely unique to each other.
What I learned from these conversations is that in addition to the technical knowledge that is shared amongst professionals, there is so much valuable learning that comes from personal stories! I started thinking less in the way of a personal story or a professional story and more as a hybrid: personal-professional.
Even with this lesson, in the years that followed internship I found it challenging to know when or how to share my personal-professional anecdotes in a way that struck a balance between the two elements. For me, sharing the personal side of a professional story usually meant including details that I would tend to omit, like the ups and downs, surprises, uncertainty, or disappointment that I might have experienced throughout a professional pursuit. Like most skills, it took practice. I also learned from interacting with my peers and observing how they achieved that balance when they would share with me. Now, I find that I draw on diverse examples from my own experience more readily when I’m meeting with colleagues or presenting to a professional audience.
More recently, as an extension of my motivational interviewing training at EatRight Ontario, I find myself seeking these personal-professional anecdotes from my colleagues as well. I’ve heard myself asking: What did you
think of ... or how did you
find ...rather than “how was it?”
It’s hard to believe that 8 years have passed since my trip to Mexico. So, imagine my surprise when, earlier this year, I received this LinkedIn message:
"We met in Monterrey (Mexico) at an international course given to the students in the Faculty of Nutrition on 2004/2005. I hope that you remember me. I was coordinator of the international interchange of students and professors in the Faculty."
It turns out that a colleague who had been living in Monterrey during my visit now works in Granada, Spain. She and I plan to re-connect at the International Congress of Dietetics in Granada in 2016!
You may have noticed that I have made it to the end of this blog post without mentioning the enriching skills and dietetic knowledge I gained during this rotation. The enabling activities were of high caliber and are captured in the required documentation that goes along with any activities that are performed during a dietetic internship.
The lessons I’ve written about focus on the experiences that aren’t necessarily captured in the forms and competency sign-off sheets.
After 8 years, I’m still passionate about my experience in Monterrey! Along with my co-founder Sio Khuan (Sharon) Khoo, RD, CDE I have launched Dietitians Explore!
to give other interns the same opportunity. Check it out at www.dietitiansexplore.ca
Editor’s note: I don’t think I could have chosen a better post with which to relaunch Practice! Lilisha's lesson on the importance of the personal-professional story is why this blog has been created. We all have unique stories to share, and I’m excited, as I hope you are too, to learn from all of our diverse journeys. Has professional-personal sharing, as Lilisha describes, opened doors for you?
I’m sure many of us as kids kept a journal, but do you still do that now as a professional? Has it helped you make new connections? Grow your career? Do you ever re-read it and learn something new?
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the benefits of professional journaling or any of the other lessons from Lilisha’s post. Please share below!