Community Engagement: A Vital Part of Marian’s Nursing Program
Giving back to others is a staple of Marian University’s Core Mission and Values. But how does our Nursing program, with its students already knowing that healing others is one of life’s most important callings, stress this critical component in the classroom? Christine P. Laurent, PhD, RNC-OB, discusses how nursing students are making connections in the community.
How do you stress the importance of community engagement in your courses?
Beginning in the very first semester of the nursing program, students explore Marian’s core values as they relate to the profession of nursing. It is easy for nursing students to understand how learning relates, but usually it takes them a little longer to make the connections to community, service, social justice, and spiritual traditions. Community engagement is one important way we facilitate making those connections.
Students learn early on that nurses are an important part of the communities they serve. They work in interdisciplinary teams and with diverse populations. Engagement in the community provides an opportunity to interact with persons and groups from different cultures, religions, and lifestyles. Learning through meaningful community-based experiences creates a deeper connection to the course material because students can take information from the classroom setting and directly apply it. Thus, they become active partners in the learning process.
Service-learning is one way to foster community engagement. It is important to understand that the learning part of service-learning doesn’t happen because of the service experience alone. The intentional, guided reflection on the experience provides students with the opportunity to explore new ideas and perspectives gained. The reflections provide evidence of broadened perspectives, expanded knowledge in course concepts, increased cultural sensitivity and social responsibility, and acquisition of professional and interpersonal skills.
How do you get your students involved in the community?
Service-learning is a part of every course I teach. It has applications to both nursing theory and clinical. We have built sustainable service partnerships with area schools, and agencies like The Salvation Army and Broken Bread of Fond du Lac. Mutual outcomes planned with our community partners help integrate course content with service opportunities. The opportunity then promotes learning through real-life experiences based upon meeting an identified community partner need. This allows students to make those important connections between Marian’s core values by applying learning to service activities while addressing social justice issues in the community. In their reflections, students describe gaining self-awareness and enhancing confidence in the process.
Nursing students engage in several service experiences in the area schools in their first semester of the program, including vision screening in preK, elementary, and middle schools. We present health programs at the middle schools about hygiene, stress reduction, and self-care. We conduct health screenings at The Salvation Army Health Hot Spot, a service offered by Marian University nursing students for food pantry clients. In the Health Hot Spot, nursing students educate clients about monthly health and wellness topics related to nutrition and exercise. They demonstrate stress reduction techniques and answer clients’ health-related questions. Nursing students also serve at Broken Bread where they take blood pressures, and help distribute the food to the clients. Finally, this semester before shelter at home took place, students at every level of the nursing program collaborated in organizing a Mini Health Fair at the Fond du Lac Fleet Farm, attended by customers and employees. Educational topics presented included healthy options for food and beverages with samples provided, and demonstrations of stress management strategies. In addition, there were health screenings offered.
Why do you think it’s important for your students to be involved in the community?
In spite of best efforts across nursing education programs, there often exists a gap between theory and practice. Being involved in the community is one of the best ways to bridge that gap, by learning about vulnerable populations and the health disparities they face. It is one thing to read about social determinants of health and the differences in health that can be the result. It is an entirely different thing to actually talk to and work with individuals who are unemployed, homeless, living in poverty, with no health care options, and facing difficult life circumstances. Community engagement allows students to see firsthand what these individuals face every day.
Nurses are on the front lines of identifying health inequities that exist in our communities. Nevertheless, it is not merely enough to identify health inequities. Through community engagement, students gain insight into the social and economic contributing factors of the overall health of the community. Community engagement allows students to practice leadership roles, engage in decision-making, develop clinical judgment, explore teamwork and collaboration, and expand their understanding of under-served populations and their needs.
How have you personally seen community engagement enrich the student experience, as well as graduate’s careers?
When I hear from our graduates, they will often reminisce about Marian and their nursing classes. Overwhelmingly the memories they share with me are about the service-learning activities in which they engaged. One student reflection was particularly poignant in relating the student’s feelings about serving at a local food pantry. This student began by stating her understanding that service was a requirement for the course, but she shared how she felt – as many students do – reluctant to engage in service hours because of an already packed schedule of academic and extracurricular commitments. Her reflection went on to describe how initially she felt conflicted about doing this particular service, because while growing up her own family needed to use the services of a food pantry. After completing the service though, she described the pride she now felt as a nursing student and being able to give back to others in this way. It was an “ah-ha” moment for her, that is, realizing everything had come full circle in her life. She wrote about how she looked forward to becoming a registered nurse and giving back to her community in other ways, too. The desires to further engage in the community, with a new or renewed sense of social responsibility is a common theme in students’ reflections. It also provides evidence of how community engagement helps the students make those important connections to Marian’s core values.