Education Done Differently: Going to Medical School Abroad

As a writer for Her Campus, I was thinking back at what topics I have covered, and realized, for a feminist online magazine, I haven’t had the chance to write about that exact topic—strong, empowered women.  That’s when it came to mind to interview Dr. Kris Prunskis, not only my cousin, but an amazing embodiment of an empowered woman forging her own path in the world. While we were planning the Zoom interview, she was in Berlin (where she now currently resides) but by the time we actually did the call, she was already back home in Chicago to visit her family. A world traveler, doctor and artist, Kris really does it all.  


When asked about advice she would give to young women, Kris Prunskis stated, “People tend to second guess your decision- and decision-making skills all the time… the bigger the risk you take the more you feel like you have to explain yourself. But at the end of the day, you know your life... dreams... struggles... better than anyone else and you are in charge of your own life... Hold yourself with confidence… have faith… and don’t let others force you to second guess yourself because you know what you’re doing.”  


In May of 2020, Kris obtained her Master of Health Science and M.D. at Vilnius University in the English Program, a six-year program combing undergraduate and graduate education. For those who don’t know where Vilnius is, it is the capital of Lithuania, where both Kris’s and my roots are. Her inspiration to go to school in Lithuania stemmed from her active involvement in the Lithuanian community since childhood and her father’s encouragement to always consider the option of school there.  In fact, Kris’s grandmother started medical school in Lithuania and finished up in Berlin, a path she feels she is replicating in her own way.  


However, Kris’s decision to attend medical school halfway across the globe wasn’t one she originally planned on. She enrolled at Bard College in New York as a medical anthropology major, and quickly decided to become pre-med after reading the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder about a medical anthropologist who was also a physician.  But, after her first semester there, although she knew she wanted to be a physician, she wasn’t ready to commit to staying in the United States for almost a decade, with the stress of school, and the financial burden of our education system.  


That’s when Kris, as she stated, “put it into the universe” that was going to attend medical school in Europe. And she did exactly that. Without much guidance or advice from others, Kris applied, got accepted, and told her parents that she was moving to Lithuania to go to medical school. To this day, she laughs about how spontaneous she was to do that and how most people, even her parents, may not know why she really chose to go to medical school abroad.  


Kris’s time in Vilnius was mostly spent studying, but she also had the opportunity travel for semesters in other places, such as Budapest, South Africa, Chicago and Colorado. In fact, Kris has traveled to over 42 countries during her free weekends while studying in Europe. She spent a year in Budapest, inspired from visiting a friend from Bard College and falling in love with the city. Not only did she love the city, but also the pathology department and their cadaver accessibility—something not everyone can say they get excited about. Before Kris was there, no relationship existed between the medical programs in Budapest and Vilnius. Kris helped organize this link between the two so she, and others, could study there.  


When asked about the benefits of attending school the way she did, Kris stated, “I was exposed to so many different healthcare systems…and to explore health care around the world…gave me a me a more well-rounded perspective of how the world functions as far as health care goes.” 


But not only does she feel more well-rounded due to the experience, she also feels she can see where the United States as well as other countries are lacking or succeeding in the healthcare system. Stemming from this idea, Kris stated, “How are you supposed to improve the system from the inside if we’re not even exposed to systems elsewhere.” 


But school abroad didn’t come without difficulties. Kris plans to return to practice in the U.S.A., and because of that she had to pass all the U.S. Licensing Exams that medical students in America have to take. While the students in America have their information geared towards those exams, Kris felt she had to learn two different systems to pass both the Lithuanian and American exams to ensure her success.  


During all this excitement and studying, Kris first heard about COVID-19 while in South Africa. She then travelled to work in a clinic in Aspen, Colorado which quickly became a hot spot for COVID due to many foreign travelers visiting after the Italian ski resorts closed. When asked about how COVID is being handled abroad versus here, she said the main difference is that in the United States, it is a lot more political than it is abroad, but nobody is really handling it properly.  


Along with COVID, 2020 brought more attention to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I asked Kris what the effect it had on the citizens in Europe and she spoke of how it spread through Europe, just like in America, very quickly. As a biracial woman living in Europe for almost a decade, Kris explained her frustrations with the mindset of many Europeans that they have no racial issues, stating, “It’s hard to have racism in a monoculture.” Stemming from the BLM movement, Kris made a core friend group in Berlin that she leans on for support. 


After Kris’s two week visit at home, she plans on going back to Berlin, studying for her last U.S. exam, applying to pediatric residency, and just when she couldn’t get any more worldly, she hopes to open a gallery in Berlin to show off her art work.


When I heard Kris’s advice for young women to “hold yourself with confidence…have faith…and don’t let others force you to second guess yourself because you know what you’re doing”, I thought how perfectly it shows who she is. A woman in power not afraid to choose an unconventional path to make a mark on the world as Dr. Kris Prunskis—traveler, artist, doctor.