For North­eastern Uni­ver­sity com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies major Kristina McK­inney, learning to speak Spanish meant total cul­tural immer­sion. She began her crash course with a three-​​month inter­na­tional co-​​op at an orphanage in Cór­doba, Argentina, fol­lowed by another three-​​month stint trans­lating for med­ical stu­dents at a hos­pital in Cusco, Peru.

There were no Eng­lish speakers in all of Cór­doba,” says McK­inney of her first co-​​op, where she lived with a host family. “I had no choice but to learn Spanish.”

She also says that tutoring and caring for chil­dren at the Hogar Bethel orphanage opened her eyes in ways she didn’t expect. “These were some of the hap­piest kids I’ve seen in my entire life,” she says, adding that the expe­ri­ence sparked her desire to con­tinue teaching Eng­lish to Spanish-​​speaking stu­dents in South America.

But first she would have the chance to do the reverse. During her next three months at the Belem­pampa Health Center in Cusco, Peru, she worked as a trans­lator for Spanish-​​speaking patients trying to com­mu­ni­cate with a group of English-​​speaking vol­un­teers from the Newark, N.J.-based New Jersey Med­ical School.

It was kind of funny that I was already trans­lating a lan­guage that I only started learning a few months ago,” she says.

But it turns out that using her Spanish-​​speaking skills was the easy part of her job at the health clinic. She also wound up helping to deliver babies.

I told them I wasn’t a med­ical stu­dent,” recalls McK­inney. “But they were under­staffed.” So she rose to the occa­sion, and under close super­vi­sion by med­ical staff, assisted by drawing blood from umbil­ical cords, recording new­born weight and height mea­sure­ments, and making rounds with the obstetricians.

It’s an expe­ri­ence that I’ll prob­ably never have again,” she says. But she notes that the oppor­tu­nity taught her as much about her­self as it did about how to master a Spanish accent or work in a mater­nity ward.

After working abroad I feel like I could con­quer any­thing,” says McK­inney. “When I grad­uate, I would love to get a job in another country. That’s my goal.”