Feature Stories 2022: Bridging the Atlantic builds ties in community health between nursing students and faculty at UMassD and the Azores

Students and faculty standing in front of a waterfall
UMassD students enjoy Terra Nostra Park in São Miguel. From left, are Amanda McGinn, Mia Slater, Veronica Resendes, Greenly Kelly, and Andrew Peterson with Dr. Maryellen Brisbois and Dr. Maria Branco.
Feature Stories 2022: Bridging the Atlantic builds ties in community health between nursing students and faculty at UMassD and the Azores
Bridging the Atlantic builds ties in community health between nursing students and faculty at UMassD and the Azores

A new group begins planning for the 2023 exchange that will focus on the impact of the global food crisis

Bridging the Atlantic, an international alliance in community health among American and Azorean nursing students and faculty, has made a successful return following a two-year hiatus and is now preparing for its seventh exchange program next March.

Last spring, in the first exchange program since the Covid-19 pandemic, nine UMass Dartmouth nursing students and faculty visited their peers at the Higher School of Health at the University of the Azores with campuses in Terceira and Ponta Delgada.  A month later, 12 Azorean students crossed the Atlantic to visit their American peers in UMassD’s College of Nursing & Health Sciences. During the exchange, students in both countries visited health care centers, hospitals, and cultural sites; attended classes; and worked collaboratively on a community health project addressing Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in schools in the U.S. and Portugal. While in the Azores, the group volunteered together to organize donations from the Azorean people to the Ukraine. 

Established by Associate Professor of Nursing Dr. Maryellen Brisbois, Bridging the Atlantic was created as a sustainable international alliance in community health among American and Azorean nursing faculty and students to foster professional relationships, enhance cultural awareness, identify health and healthcare roles from a global perspective, and explore collaborative opportunities.

To date, more than 130 students have participated in this program over six years of the exchange, which is funded by a grant from the DeMello Charitable Foundation. As Bridging the Atlantic has grown more popular, applications increased by 50% this year.

“It is important for nurses to understand the impact of their role in caring for persons, families and populations from both domestic and global perspectives,” said Brisbois. “This opportunity allows for learning about another country in real time, working with colleagues from another country to discern a community health issue, and to intervene.”

“[Bridging the Atlantic] fosters development in cultural competence in nursing care,” said Dr. Helder Rocha Pereira, PhD, RN Coordinator. “The students were paired together in a clinical rotation and prepared a research project together. They went to classes and visited healthcare facilities and a high school. They worked together on community engagement projects and improved their language skills. They learned how healthcare contrasts in the two countries. They will better understand other cultures and better understand their own culture.”

Students learned how to care for someone different than themselves, how nursing is taught in another country, how to work with vulnerable groups, and to evaluate their health needs, added Poeira. “Our relevant ideas are to plan, deliver, and evaluate.  We’re not going there and coming home. We learned to work together.”

Ruben Pandoro of São Miguel said he learned to improve his soft skills and that working in a group or a team is a very good experience for future nurses. “In Portugal, we have a national healthcare system. It’s very good to get a different perspective of how things are done. I’m very happy to be here; we’re looking to take this experience and improve our skills.”

"I love the way everyone worked together,” said Amanda McGinn of Wellesley, MA, who participated in the 2022 program. “We learned to work with people with different experiences. As a nurse, you must be able to work with anybody on your floor. We really communicated with each other. We had a great variety of students and we enjoyed our time together. The Azores are amazing, the people are so welcoming.”

An autonomous archipelago located 870 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal, the Azores is comprised of nine volcanic islands with half of the population residing in San Miguel. To prepare for their trip, UMassD students complete a semester of Portuguese class with Dr. Maria Branco.

Ten junior UMassD nursing students were just selected for the spring 2023 exchange and include Cassandra Bonilla, Alexa Costa, Jill Dacosta, Kerina Demers, Adriana Fernandes, Kayla McLaughlin, Andrea Silva, Paige Bernier, Catherine Stetson, and Morgan Wahlstrom. 

UMassD and Azorean nursing students on stage following presentation
UMass Dartmouth and University of the Azores nursing students and faculty following a joint presentation on "Bridging Safe Relationships" in the Azores last spring. Planning is now underway for the seventh Bridging the Atlantic exchange during spring break 2023.

Bridging the Atlantic has explored a range of community health topics

Each year, students participating in Bridging the Atlantic have tackled different topics including understanding the quality of life among deportees from the U.S. to Portugal, educational intervention with Portuguese elders in the SouthCoast regarding increased cancer rates, supporting student understanding of health and safety among middle school students, and holding a health fair for fishermen related to common health problems. 

The 2023 exchange will mark the tenth anniversary of planning the Bridging the Atlantic program. According to Brisbois, students and faculty will engage in understanding the impact of the global food crisis that has led to food insecurity in the U.S., Portugal, and beyond through hands-on experiences, raising awareness, and providing education to their communities.

The most recent exchange program focused on dating violence among adolescents, as this is a challenge in middle and high schools in the U.S. and Portugal. Students and faculty from both countries worked on a research study, Bridging Safe Relationships, and developed an educational intervention for high schools in Sao Miguel and Terceira. In the U.S., students and faculty from both countries were invited to participate in the Parent/Teacher night at the Henry Lord Middle School in Fall River to engage younger students in activities related to healthy relationships.

Because Intimate Partner Violence is on the rise globally among adolescents, the goal of this project was on primary prevention, educating students in both countries about IPV and how to protect themselves and others. The nursing students aimed to teach adolescents to create healthy relationships and lower the levels of acceptance and prevalence of dating violence.

In January, each team began collaborating on their research to gather data to use in interventions designed to educate students about safe relationships. According to Brisbois, research conducted in the high school in the Azores before the intervention indicated that none of the students interviewed identified the three types of Intimate Partner Violence (physical, psychological, financial). Follwing the education interventions with students from both countries, more than a third now able to identify the three types of violence.

While interventions in the Azores were for high school students, Brisbois said that middle school is the best age to begin talking about IPV so the younger students know what signs to look for when they reach adolescence.

During the middle school parent-teacher conference night in Fall River, students and parents moved along various interactive stations to learn about IPV, body image, healthy relationships, and social media safety. On large poster of two figures holding hands, students were invited to write what they think is involved in healthy relationship.

As she worked with the middle school students on social media safety, Mia Slater ’23 of Somerset, MA, said they had a lot to offer. “They’re all communicating on social media and social media and healthy relationships are intertwined. We’re getting very positive feedback from the parents.”

Research findings on perceptions of partner violence were presented at a symposium held at UMass Dartmouth the end of the U.S. visit that included faculty speakers from both universities along with a presentation by nursing majors Amanda McGinn, Caterina Perry, and Ana Dinis. A “Bridging Safe Relationships” handbook was printed in English, Spanish, and Portuguese at the end of the project.

Students and faculty in warehouse packing supplies for Ukraine
American and Azorean nursing students volunteered together to organize donations by the Azorean people to send to the Ukraine.

Cultural exchange creates “unbreakable” bonds

While the research project provided new awareness and skills for participating students, the exchange left lasting impressions.

"I learned and grew so much as a nurse and a person from the activities we did in São Miguel. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the relationships that were formed are unbreakable," said Greenly Kelly ‘23.

"“To me, it’s a bridge,” said Victoria Resendes ’23 of Swansea, MA. "On this trip to São Miguel, I met so many amazing people, saw so many amazing things, and was able to learn so much about a culture and community that was very new to me." 

Learn more about Bridging the Atlantic.