Service learning allows students to apply lessons and skills learned in the classroom to real-world situations for the betterment of both their education and the local community. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, service learning looks like this: students have the opportunity to flex and fine point their newly acquired patient care and advocacy skills while helping a high-risk yet underserved community in West Philadelphia get healthier.
Established by students (yes, students) in 2014, the unique Community Champions program offers a slate of dynamic and creative opportunities for hands-on learning.
"By collaborating with dedicated faculty, students participate in service learning outside of the classroom, which ultimately strengthens their nursing and leadership skills," explained faculty program director Terri H. Lipman, PhD, CRNP, FAAN. "These experiences help nursing students better understand the social determinants of health and how they impact community members, and increase their skills in communication, leadership, care and advocacy."
Dr. Lipman and three student authors published a rundown of the program recently in the Journal of Nursing Education and Practice. Without needing to teach them outright, Community Champions instills several essential competencies for nursing success.
As previously mentioned, Community Champions is student-established and student-led — with the help of faculty mentors. In just a few short years, Community Champions has more than doubled from involving 20 students to more than 50. And those are the ones who make it in.
“In order to be considered, each student must submit an essay about their interests, motivations and potential contributions,” the authors explain in the article. “Students must also describe previous leadership experience and community engagement.”
Upon acceptance, students are matched to Community Champions outreaches based on their interests, experience and community needs. Afterword, they devote several hours a week to the program.
Like many underserved communities, West Philadelphia has a number of health challenges, such as obesity, hypertension, smoking, gonorrhea, chlamydia, preventable hospitalizations and food safety. Community Champions creatively battles these with programs that are insightful yet fun.
Several Dance for Health programs target groups as diverse as schoolchildren, older adults and everyone in between and are modified to match participants’ abilities. A Library Partnership has nursing students creating and presenting health lessons at local libraries for all ages. A couple of awareness programs have students teaching 4th- and 5th-graders about risk factors for diabetes and asthma. And a Health Sciences Exploration Program geared to 6th- through 8th-graders meets after school and explores a variety of health topics relevant to middle-schoolers, such as nutrition, exercise and acne.
While Community Champions originated in the school of nursing, it has expanded to include students from other schools at the university. In several of the programs, nursing students work side-by-side with medical students — and alongside them are leaders of community organizations and representatives of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
Collaboration with groups outside of nursing enriches the experience, trains participants to see situations with a more multifaceted view, and gets the future nurses one step closer to real-world realities.
An important element of many Community Champions interventions is data collection.
Data collected in Dance for Health line-dancing community programs includes participants’ heart rate and weight. The Dance for Health school program records stats on heart rate, weight, height and steps as measured by pedometers. A Dance for Health initiative for older adults at a Living Independently for Elders Center considers data and survey responses to gauge whether dance has an effect on participants’ depression.
“It is imperative for the [student] leaders of each initiative to collect data and communicate the outcome results with partnering community organizations,” the article states. “By analyzing and disseminating the data, Community Champions leaders can better understand the impact of the programs and learn how to improve.”
In today’s health care environment, data collection and analysis is a skill that serves nurses well — much like taking initiative, promoting health in creative ways, and being comfortable with interprofessional collaboration.
“Students become better communicators, leaders, teachers and advocates by participating in Community Champions,” the article points out. “These skills will ultimately make the students better nurses and stronger leaders in the ever-changing and growing field of healthcare.”