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A critical analysis of undergraduate students' cultural immersion experiences


  • No conflict of interest has been declared by the authors.

  • Funding: This study was supported by a grant from the University of Lethbridge Research Fund.

Jean N. Harrowing, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada T1K 3M4; Tel: 403-394-3944; Fax: 403-329-2668; E-mail:


HARROWING J.N., GREGORY D.M., O'SULLIVAN P.S., LEE B. & DOOLITTLE L. (2012) A critical analysis of undergraduate students' cultural immersion experiences. International Nursing Review

Purpose:  This paper is concerned with the impact of an international health promotion experience on the understanding of culture among university students. Such immersion experiences are often cited as a strategy to prepare nurses for culturally appropriate practice. We describe students' epistemic movements over time with respect to cultural perspectives prior to, during and after a field study in Malawi.

Design:  Data were collected at three time points from students in undergraduate nursing (n = 14) and non-nursing (n = 8) programs at a Canadian university. Two essays narrating participants' understanding of culture were submitted by consenting class members. A subgroup of nine participants (four nursing students, five from other disciplines) completed a third narrative following a subsequent field study course in Malawi.

Method:  Using narrative analysis, themes and structures in the participants' writing were identified and located within a constructivist or essentialist paradigm of cultural understanding.

Findings:  Overwhelmingly, students' narratives were initially portrayed and informed by an essentialist understanding of culture. Later narratives demonstrated varying degrees of epistemic movement towards more constructivist viewpoints. Narratives that initially exhibited constructivist characteristics tended to display strengthened convictions in that paradigm.

Conclusion:  We challenge the claim that an international immersion experience immediately transforms participants into cultural experts; our evidence suggests that students experienced existential growth, but their understanding of culture did not change as a result of their brief stay in a different cultural context. Cultural immersion is a phenomenon that requires more critical analysis and systematic investigation to determine how such experiences contribute to learning about culture among nursing students.

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