Penn Nursing Undergrad Seeks Enlightenment, Better Health Through Service at Buddhist Retreat

This summer, Stephanie Tran Rojas, an undergraduate nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania, is exploring a new approach to healthy living at a tranquil Tibetan Buddhist retreat in California.

The Land of the Medicine Buddha, a retreat and Dharma, or Buddhist-teachings center, in the mountains of Santa Cruz, shares the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, a way to finding enlightenment for the benefit of all beings with feelings. This path focuses on achieving “awakening” through the pursuit of six “perfections”: generosity, moral discipline, patience, effort, meditation and wisdom.

Rojas’ goal is to gain clarity, mindfulness and new perspectives about health.

A rising sophomore from San Diego, Rojas was diagnosed with childhood leukemia at age 9. After enduring nearly two years of chemotherapy, surgery and intense treatment, her cancer will have been in remission for nine years in September.

As a freshman in Penn Nursing, however, while excelling academically, she was failing at her own health. Rojas noticed that she was neglecting herself: she wasn’t eating properly, she wasn’t exercising and she did not get enough rest.

So this summer, she turned down two paid internship offers to conduct cancer research with major health organizations in order to focus on her own physical and emotional well-being. Now, she has a new outlook.

“It’s about finally being able to prioritize ‘me’ and my personal needs instead of always putting my health at the end of a long list of responsibilities,” Rojas says. “It was time to take everything I learned to a place where I could reflect on those experiences. I found a program in nature that would allow me to focus on those needs.”

As a work-service intern at the retreat, Rojas trades 35 hours of unpaid labor in exchange for housing and food. As the retreat groups come and go, she performs tasks that usually would be handled by a resort’s housekeeping and kitchen staff. She makes beds, cleans rooms, does laundry, prepares meals and washes dishes.

“Many times, the monks rely on the good nature of others and this Dharma center would not survive without the free work of its interns,” Rojas says. “It is a humble place with a small group of dedicated staff that allows it to run.”

As a perk, Rojas has free access to the retreat’s on-site facilities, like the sauna, pool and mediation rooms. Plus, she participates in its spiritual program, which includes classes on meditation, Chinese medicine and Qi Gong, exercises consisting of repeatable movements that stretch the body and build awareness of how it moves through space.

“I’m surrounded by amazing people from around the world who have dedicated their lives to healthy living,” Rojas says. “From yogis to monks, their dedication just fills you with positivity, not just in terms of eating healthy and maintaining fitness but through changing the way you think.”

She is studying various Buddhist principles through the retreat’s Discovering Buddhism course. The assigned readings give Rojas a better understanding of the religion’s core beliefs, the four noble truths, suffering, its causes and how to follow eight steps to end suffering.

“It is a strong principle in Buddhism to detach from the self, ‘getting over yourself,’” Rojas says. “That little voice in your head that says, ‘What about me?’ is ignored in place of serving other beings and giving them what they need, thinking of them before yourself and valuing them.”

In her free time, Rojas has explored the area by bicycle and been able to reconnect with family.

Her parents divorced when Rojas was a toddler. Raised by her father, she saw her mother infrequently, but, thanks to her summer internship, that’s changed, too.

“This was a chance to be close to my mom, who lives in Santa Cruz,” says Rojas. “It has been a great bonding opportunity, where we could talk about our lives and catch up.”

Together, Rojas and her mother volunteer at the Homeless Garden Project, a non-profit farm that grows produce and donates its proceeds to nearby homeless shelters. For Rojas, this summer has been a life-changing journey of discovery.

“I came to this program wanting to learn more about mindfulness, a Buddhist principle,” Rojas says. “In the process, this summer has become a great opportunity to learn about Buddhism and much more.”

She hopes to continue practicing meditation to help her stay focused, while using mindfulness to stay present and attentive with everything she does. This idea, she says, extends not only to her academic life but also to caring for her future patients and others.

“These skills will definitely come into play in the nursing profession, but I wanted to practice them to become a happier and more peaceful human being –- for myself.”

Stephanie Tran Rojas doing yoga at the retreat