Student completes capstone in Finland

Melanie in Finland
Melanie sits in front of the Estonian horizon.

Between bowls of summer soup, sight-seeing and learning a difficult language, Melanie Vandenbark, from Olathe, Kansas, felt fulfilled as she worked hard to care for Finland’s sick and wounded.

Vandenbark, a recent graduate from the College of Nursing, was the first of BYU’s nursing students to go to Finland to complete her senior capstone course.

Finland and Melanie

Vandenbark said the transition to Finland was difficult. “The first night I got there I thought, ‘what am I doing here?'” she said. But as she immersed herself more and more into the culture and the nursing practices, she felt more comfortable. “It’s interesting learning how to help people from different cultures,” she said.

Among Vandenbark’s favorite Finnish foods were summer soup, which is a potato and carrot soup with a cream base, and sautéed reindeer, which she said was delicious. She also made Finnish sweet bread called pulla. “You know how everybody has their own way to make chili?” she said. “This is sort of like that, and everybody’s grandma makes the best pulla.”

As well as trying new foods, Vandenbark participated in new activities like dog sledding. One of my favorite things that we did was the husky ride. “There were 13 dogs pulling the sled, and the sun came out just in time for our ride,” she said. “The dogs go so fast, and apparently they love it! It’s like playing for them.”

Nursing education in Finland

It was difficult for Vandenbark to accustom herself to the language, the different equipment and the Finnish terminology. The three coincided daily, creating a perfect storm for her. “I felt like I didn’t know anything again,” she said, “It was hard to learn and be humble.” Even though she experienced a steep learning curve, she wasn’t totally lost due to her nursing education at BYU.  “Thank goodness they made us learn the generic names for medicines,” she said. “At least those are the same!”

Vandenbark noted a few differences in nursing education. Finnish nurses learn less theory, but have more practice. They also must complete 3 ½ years of school and a thesis, which is different from US nursing schools. Nurses in Finland don’t pay for their education either. “The cost of school in America was surprising to them,” she said. While in school, the government subsidizes one meal a day and provides a monthly stipend, so nurses complete school with no debt.

Not everything was foreign to Vandenbark. Finnish nurses practice and run simulations on manikins similar to those used at BYU.

As part of the program, Vandenbark practiced nursing in different areas. The operating and anesthesia ward was her favorite rotation. Vandenbark said the ward involved critical care, more advanced work and friendly coworkers. “They were really receptive toward me, and the language I knew was enough to get by.” The doctors Vandenbark worked with enjoyed mentoring her, often giving her medical scenarios and asking her for a diagnosis.

Nursing in Finland

BYU College of Nursing professors encourage students to view their patients’ sicknesses holistically, considering emotional and spiritual well-being as well as physical ailments, or in other words, to learn the Healer’s art. Vandenbark noticed that Finnish nurses also take more into account than just physical needs, but with a slight difference. “They do consider emotional and spiritual aspects of nursing, but because we at BYU are religious, we are more open to calling it spirituality in nursing.”

Nurses practice differently as well. According to Vandenbark, nurses in Finland work five 8-hour shifts each week. (US nurses typically work three 12-hour shifts.) Finnish nurses find it difficult to spend time with their families due to their grueling work schedule. Their take-home pay is less than that of a starting nurse in the US because they pay higher taxes, so it’s common for spouses to work as well.

Vandenbark was surprised to learn that Finnish nurses don’t carry stethoscopes while working. “Assessing the lungs or the heart is not within the scope of practice for Finnish nurses, but is a big part of nursing at BYU and in the United States,” she said.


The language proved to be very challenging for Vandenbark. On one occasion, the local branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked her to speak during services in Finnish. Vandenbark accepted the invitation and rose to the challenge. “I was pretty nervous to say the least, even though there were seriously only 15 people tops,” she said. With hard work, and a lot of help from Finnish friends, she successfully spoke in church.

Vandenbark said some of her most rewarding experiences occurred while trying to communicate with her patients. “There were a couple of special moments that I had with patients when the language barrier would breakdown and we would understand each other,” she said. “It doesn’t matter your language or culture. When you look into another’s eyes, you realize that we are all the same.”

Vandenbark’ future

Vandenbark recently accepted her first nursing position at the University of Kansas Medical Center. After gaining some experience, she plans to continue her education and become a professor, following in her mentors’ footsteps. “I’ve had some great professors who have taken me under their wings, and helped me develop as a student and a nurse,” she said. In order to repay the favor, Vandenbark said she too would like to inspire and instruct the world’s future nurses.

Published by BYU Nursing

Guided by the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we exemplify the Healer’s art by: leading with faith and integrity; advancing the science of nursing and healthcare; promoting health and wellness; alleviating suffering; and serving individuals, families, and communities. The mission of the College of Nursing at Brigham Young University is to learn the Healer’s art and go forth to serve.

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