Most Saturday mornings in fall 2012, Taylor Black, '14, left the slumbering house she shared with exchange students in Santiago’s upper-class community of Providencia and rode the metro for an hour to the modest neighborhood of Sotero del Rio Hospital. 

This train ride was the beginning of a weekly transformative experience for Black that has helped shape her academic and career choices.

Black studied abroad in fall 2012 at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC), a Richmond exchange partner. Shortly after arriving at PUC-Chile, she joined a student service group named Calcuta UC that volunteered in pediatric wards in Santiago. 

She and about 10 other PUC-Chile students planned and led bedside recreational and craft activities for children at Hospital Sotero. The 779-bed public facility serves the inhabitants of seven of Santiago’s poorest districts, or comunas. 

Before studying in Chile, Black had volunteered at a U.S. private hospital in her native New Jersey. That well-equipped facility was vastly different from what she found at Sotero, where pediatric patients stayed on wards, and volunteers entered hospital rooms and began working without security checks.

“Having the opportunity to interact with these kids gave me an interesting glimpse into an aspect of Chilean society that I would never have been exposed to,” Black said. “It’s one thing to know wealth disparity exists. It’s another thing to be in the throes of it and see it played out on a daily basis.”

An interaction that became a galvanizing moment for Black involved a tween girl who had diabetes. Assuming the girl was in the hospital because of a temporary sickness or setback due to the disease, Black asked the girl how much longer she would be in the hospital. The child replied, “I live here.”

Shocked, Black began asking questions. In U.S. health care, patients with diabetes typically live and manage the disease outside the hospital. After further research with fellow volunteers, Black learned that the Chilean girl’s situation was common in local society and could be the result of a number of factors including a family’s ability to have the resources or knowledge to manage the disease at home. 

“Having this experience in Chile helped me see that I want to work in public health as a career,” Black said. She has placed her next step firmly on this path. She spent summer 2013 interning in Richmond, Va., with the World Pediatric Project. 

Photo: Taylor Black playing with a young Chilean patient.

"I decided to study abroad in Chile as opposed to more popular Spanish-speaking destinations because I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and challenge myself.┬┐ ┬┐Taylor Black

"I decided to study abroad in Chile as opposed to more popular Spanish-speaking destinations because I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and challenge myself.” —Taylor Black

Time spent with fellow volunteers allowed Black also to achieve additional cultural breakthroughs. After months of working together and building friendships, the Chilean students who lived in Santiago with their parents began to invite Black and other volunteers to their homes to share meals. In such a tight, family-centric society, these invitations were typically hard to come by and offered a rare opportunity to take part in Chilean domestic life.