Blog post

My voluntary work experience in Mexico

Nursing student Natalia Martinez Soler volunteered for placement during her second year helping migrants in Mexico, funded through the Turing Scheme and a supplementary College of Health, Psychology and Social Care travel award.

By Natalia Martinez Soler - 22 December 2022

I have always thought that volunteering abroad can be a positive experience for my personal and professional life, as it would help me develop new connections with people and the environment and create meaningful experiences and memories. 

And what attracted me the most about the Mexico placement was the project itself, I thought it would be a good opportunity to better understand the social determinants of health and health inequalities linked to migration. 

Why go abroad as a volunteer? 

Anyone interested in volunteering abroad should enquire about the opportunities offered by the University of Derby and check their programme requirements beforehand.

My programme leader was very supportive through the whole process, they worked with my academic tutor and module leaders and lecturers to accommodate my needs and adjust any deadlines. The University of Derby and Projects Abroad provided me with all the information I needed. And I attended face-to-face and online meetings when every step of the process was explained to me and I could clarify all the doubts I had and ease any pre-travelling anxieties!

One piece of advice I would give to anyone is to manage your time well and make a plan to work on any deadlines and final assignments before you leave. This will help you not to think about any unfinished work while you are abroad, and you will fully enjoy the experience. If you are organised, this is possible!

What is Projects Abroad and how did I end up in Guadalajara?

Projects Abroad is a company with more than 25 years of experience in addressing the social and environmental challenges of different communities around the world. Their programmes provide an experience for volunteers to understand the current issues happening in the places they visit and make a positive impact on these communities. 

FM4 is one of the volunteering placements they offer. It is a non-profit organisation based in Guadalajara that aims to promote the human rights of migrants and refugees. My job as a volunteer was to provide support for them at an aid shelter.

Mexico is a transit country for many migrants and refugees who move from Central America and other countries in search of a better life in the United States, although some chose to remain in Mexico. Many of them are forced to leave their countries for different reasons, including violence and poor economic conditions.  

Working alongside the migrants and other volunteers, I saw the challenges they faced throughout their journey. The fact of being labelled as a migrant adds many barriers to human rights, such as limited access to health, employment, housing or education.

During the nursing programme at the University of Derby, we learn through different modules that health is a fundamental human right that is often affected by its social determinants. In this case, I realised how the place where you are born can affect the quality-of-life outcomes. 

The location of the shelter was close to the train tracks, and we often received people with injuries. This is because migrants and refugees often travel on top of a cargo train to avoid immigration controls. However, the risk of injury and death from these journeys is high, as they have to climb aboard and jump off the moving train while it often moves at a very high speed.

Other risks they are exposed to when travelling on these trains are physical violence, robbery and sexual assault. Whilst the journey is a violent one, these trains have been transporting migrants for many years. This is a cruel reality that cannot be ignored, which made me think about how little information is shared on the migrants’ social situation and the need to address these inequalities.

While nongovernmental organisations, charities and campaigns make a valuable contribution to the journey of migrants and refugees, I realised that more support is needed from policymakers, health systems, government and other organisations in monitoring these groups and improving the services available to them.  

What I did as a volunteer 

During my time as a volunteer at the shelter, some of the tasks I was involved in included welcoming the migrants, explaining some ground rules of the shelter, doing security checks and offering them food and drinks. Some of them had walked for 20 days and had little access to food or drink. As a result, dehydration and malnutrition were common health issues. Other tasks I was involved in were assisting with supplying clothes and organising donations, cooking, helping with humanitarian calls, keeping the shelter clean and participating in social immersion. We sat together and shared different stories and played table football and instruments. 

One way I developed my skills and self-confidence was to participate in delivering a CPR and First Aid training session for the migrants and volunteers. We thought it was useful knowledge that could provide them with some basic skills to use on their journey to help themselves and others in emergency situations. I contributed to the health promotion and infection prevention advice for wound care and used my skills in wound care and leg dressing, as many of the injuries I saw were to the limbs. I realised how little things could make a difference in these people's lives. 

In addition to the work at the shelter, I participated in a one-day medical outreach programme. We travelled to a poor neighbourhood, where I had the opportunity to work with a doctor on needs assessment, physical assessment, history taking, diagnosis, detecting malnutrition, detecting risk factors in the environment and provision of medication. This community had little access to health care and without this programme they would not receive any of the medical assistance and support they need. It was a very rewarding experience and I learned how to maximise the use of limited resources.  

Reflecting on the experience 

Taking part in this project was an unforgettable experience that meant a lot to me. I built supportive relationships with migrants, other volunteers, professionals from different fields and the Mexican community. I connected with people from different backgrounds, which allowed me to open my mind and understand different cultures and opinions. I learned different skills that I can apply to nursing and this community showed me a perfect example of resilience. 

Some of the phrases that will stick in my mind are that we are all migrants, that no human being is illegal, and that healthcare is a human right. I hope that one day there will be a world without borders and that more bridges will be built instead of walls.  

After my volunteering placement in Guadalajara, I had time to reflect on how I could integrate what I had seen and experienced into my professional and personal learning. I have realised how important it is to bring health closer to everyone and to make it accessible to all. By learning how to adapt to work in a challenging environment and optimising the use of the few resources I had, I now have a greater appreciation of all the equipment and supplies that are available to us in everyday practice and how to use them effectively. 

About the author

Natalia Martinez Soler

Natalia Martinez Soler
Adult Nursing Student

Natalia is a third-year student nurse at the University of Derby. She studies Adult Nursing and is based at our Chesterfield site. Her interests are: Travelling, learning from new cultures, dancing, nature, sea life, reading, cooking, voluntary work, socialising, healthcare and human rights.