Victoria Schindler knew she would one day go back to Colombia and visit the adoption agency where her daughter, now 26, spent the first few months of her life.

What she didn’t know was that her return to the South American country nearly 21 years later would inspire a growing university student exchange program focused on sharing and learning practices related to mental health, substance-use disorders and other health therapies.

The Stockton University exchange program, which just completed its fifth annual trip, has expanded to include not only Schindler’s graduate occupational therapy students but students from multiple areas of study who are interested in learning more about global health to make an impact.

“This is sometimes the first time students get to see what it’s like outside the U.S.,” Schindler said. “It can really be eye-opening.”

The exchange program, which takes place over one week during the university’s spring break, grew from only a handful of students in its first year to 35 students this spring.

Schindler started the program five years ago with an education grant for study in other countries after returning from Colombia on a trip with her daughter. She said she was so sad to leave the country that she immediately jumped at the chance to bring an exchange program to the university.

Although grant-funded in the first year, students now pay most of the costs to travel and stay for the weeklong trip.

While local students learn about health care systems in Colombia by visiting the orphanage, rehabilitation centers, medical schools and other public health locations, four Colombian students come to Stockton to share rehabilitation practices in their country and see examples of how health care is addressed in the United States.

The Colombian students, who study occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech pathology in Colombia, work with Stockton students and local organizations like the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County to get an idea of what solutions in the health care field may also work in Colombia.

“I think Colombia still struggles with the weight of its past with drug cartels and people who are still suffering in poverty and from addiction,” Schindler said. “A lot of times, they don’t have the kind of money we do here for rehabilitation.”

As she walked through the quad area on Stockton’s main campus in Galloway Township on a recent afternoon, Christy Falzone’s mind was in Bogota, where she discovered how differently care centers operated from the hospitals and clinics in her home country.

“We went to a center where a lot of people were in addiction recovery, and we sat and talked with them and learned about the different structures they have there,” said Falzone, 24, originally from Old Bridge, Middlesex County.

Colombia experienced rampant drug activity and related crimes in the 1990s, and so adoption rates were high, Schindler said.

It is much better there today, she said, but people still struggle with public health issues that are different, and yet the same as some of the issues seen in America, especially in regards to the addiction epidemic.

“I always knew that I would hold the country in my heart,” Schindler said. “And now students get to go there and come here to learn from each other.”

Contact: 609-272-7022 Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Staff Writer

Previously interned and reported for, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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