A Long Way From Home, Carolina Gonzalez Canas, Reflects on a Transformative Five-years With Purdue and GEP2

Carolina Gonzalez Canas always admired her mother’s career as a nurse. Weak at the sight of blood, however, a career in the medical field was not in Carolina’s future. But when her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Carolina’s interest in combining her bachelor's in statistics with a healthcare career grew. “I realized that there were a lot of researchers in that field, and I wanted to focus my skills on analyzing that,” Carolina says. As she prepares to graduate with her doctoral degree in Industrial Engineering focused on Healthcare Analytics in August, she reflects on her five transformative years with Purdue and Global Engineering Programs and Partnerships (GEP2) and the unexpected road that brought her from Colombia to West Lafayette, Indiana.

A Journey Beyond The City of Eternal Spring 

It wasn’t easy for Carolina to move more than 2,500 miles from her native Colombia. “It was one of the hardest decisions I have made in my life,” she says. Carolina grew up in Medellín, Colombia. Commonly known as “The City of Eternal Spring,” Medellín is a temperate paradise nestled in the center of the stunning Andes Mountains, with temperatures rarely fluctuating from a comfortable 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Her entire family lives in Colombia, and she had a well-paying job as a data analyst. “To leave all those things that make me feel comfortable and try to move to a completely different country with very different weather living as a student with more economic limitations at the time was hard.” 

However, careers in healthcare analytics are not very common in her home country, and she lacked something else important— her boyfriend, Gustavo. For a year, the couple’s relationship was almost entirely long-distance, and he’d recently enrolled in a doctoral program in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue. It guaranteed at least another four years apart. 

Education is important to Carolina and Gustavo. After earning her undergraduate degree in statistics from the National University of Colombia, Medellín, Carolina considered applying to a master’s program in epidemiology in Colombia. Then, Gustavo imagined a new possibility; perhaps Carolina could find a doctoral program at Purdue, too. She was overwhelmed by the hope of being close to her partner and enrolling in a program she was passionate about. Still, the decision to leave her family in Medellin wasn’t an easy one. She had a lot of questions. What if the relationship didn’t work out? What if she wanted to leave?

She recalls something her mother told her, “My mom told me this decision is for you and your future. If your relationship ends, you will finish your Ph.D. because that will be your achievement in your education. Focus on you and your career.” 

Carolina was accepted into the School of Industrial Engineering with a focus on healthcare analytics. Though healthcare analytics is not one of the traditional four branches of industrial engineering, “more recently, industrial engineers can do statistical analysis and are involved with that kind of research,” Carolina explains. Her advisor has an appointment with both industrial engineering and nursing schools, “So I can have the best of both worlds and apply the analytic knowledge for improving processes in a healthcare context.” 

Carolina joined her boyfriend in West Lafayette just after the New Year, in January 2018. The temperature was -18 degrees Fahrenheit, a bitter winter even for hardy Hoosiers. Yet, the ever-optimistic graduate student found something to celebrate. “It was my first time seeing the snow; it was amazing! But at that time, I was like, I should’ve waited to start in the fall semester,” she jokes. 

It was a brutal initiation into the Midwest, but summer soon ushered in warmer days, blooming hydrangeas, flowering dogwoods, and new opportunities for the first-year doctoral student. A friend of her boyfriend worked at GEP2, which was offering a fellowship to a graduate assistant with skills in statistical analysis who could help perform statistical analysis on information the organization collects about its programs. She applied, got the position, and started the following fall—the first of many personal and academic milestones she would experience at Purdue. 

Later that fall, Carolina accompanied her boyfriend on a study-abroad trip to Italy. In the stunning Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, he proposed. Carolina said yes, and the couple married in a small civil ceremony in West Lafayette the following year.  

Numbers Beyond Borders: A Personal Transformation Inspired by Data

At GEP2, Carolina’s primary role was to lead the statistical analysis of collected Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment data for on and off-campus courses, which assesses for intercultural competency and helps participants build intercultural skills. 

Carolina analyzed IDI data before and after study abroad trips to identify patterns in intercultural competency. Was participant competency improving or not? To what degree? She built simple reports in Excel to track the data but wondered if visualization tools could help university faculty and staff better understand the data. She didn’t often get to explore visualization tools in her coursework and thought this was an excellent opportunity to explore the tools’ capabilities. Carolina created eight interactive dashboards using a visualization tool called Tableau to present various data sets GEP2 collected. “We shared the dashboards with other directors and even the Dean. They were like, oh, that’s cool,” Carolina explains. They decided to publish the dashboards Carolina built on the GEP2 website. “They were appreciating my job, what I’m doing. So that was cool.”  

Now, visitors to GEP2’s Data Digest web page can use the interactive dashboard to learn about GEP2 programs and their impact, and Carolina has a new set of highly sought-after skills to take with her into the workforce. As more real-world data becomes available in healthcare contexts, analysts like Carolina can use visualization tools to understand complex data sets better and use the information to improve patient experiences. “I have very high skills and knowledge in Tableau, thanks to my work in GEP2,” she says. Carolina’s experience with GEP2 expanded not only her professional horizons but also personal ones. 

Carolina took the IDI assessment multiple times during her career with GEP2 to better understand the data she worked with. Each time she retook the assessment, she noticed her own intercultural competencies improve. “When I came here, I didn’t have a lot of experience with intercultural communities,” she explains. “But after interacting with the GEP office, and being in the university and applying what I learned in the IDI training, I feel more adapted to the community and different cultures.”

Carolina’s supervisors and co-workers at GEP are from countries like China, El Salvador, and India. “In that space, I felt safe asking questions without feeling judged,” she said. She often received advice from coworkers about cultural differences between America and other countries. “I think that made things easier because in class, you interact with people from different cultures, but you don’t always feel comfortable asking all those things in life,” she says. Things like the appropriate amount of personal space to give someone during a conversation or the length of an email. In Colombia, for example, it’s not uncommon to receive a hug and kiss from someone you are meeting for the first time. “I was told in America, people like to keep their personal space,” she says. She also learned that, unlike very long emails typical of Colombians, the American communication style involves straightforward, to-the-point emails. “Something as small as that can really change the way you interact with people.” 

A Home Away From Home

Five years ago, Carolina left almost everything she knew in Colombia— namely, the pristine weather and her family— to build a life at Purdue. It was a difficult decision, “But I’m glad I did. I’m happy here,” she says.

In the warmth of August, her parents and brother will travel to West Lafayette for the first time to celebrate Carolina’s graduation from Purdue as a family. “When I think about the graduation moment, I feel excited. It’s been five years. It’s a big achievement, and my parents are very proud. It will be a very beautiful moment.”