Students practice collaborative community outreach in Birmingham in preparation for solving the world's problems.By Rosalind Fournier
Kathryn Van Marter-Sanders is preparing for a career in the Peace Corps with a master’s degree from the UAB School of Public Health. But before she travels abroad, the second-year student has already tackled real community health problems in Birmingham as part of the UAB Interprofessional Global Health Service Learning (IGHSL) program.
The program, which launched in spring 2013, begins with classroom instruction in health disparities, global health, project planning, and interdisciplinary teamwork. Then students join together in small groups to implement these lessons in a real-life project with a community partner. Van Marter-Sanders chose the homeless-advocacy group One Roof for her project, working with UAB undergraduate students Stephen Voss, William Carter, and Agam Dhawan to design a vulnerability index for homeless individuals in Birmingham. Vulnerability indexes are used in other communities to identify those who face the highest health risks and should be prioritized for spots in available housing.
Van Marter-Sanders says she learned first and foremost that no one area of expertise can solve a problem on its own. “There are so many factors involved,” she explains. “Whether it’s fighting homelessness, disease, or other issues related to public wellness, if I were just to look at it from the perspective of my background in public health, I would be missing so many other factors that are just as important.”
A Crash Course in Collaboration
Nalini Sathiakumar, M.D., Dr.P.H., a professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health, directs the GHSL program, with faculty and advisors coming from each of UAB’s other schools. Sathiakumar says that one priority is helping students break out of their comfort zones by working with people from different backgrounds and disciplines. “That’s real life,” she explains, “and through this program they’re getting that exposure early on.” Another priority is helping students get a taste for connecting with the larger community through service.
Students are able to name a first, second, and third choice from the community partners involved in the GHSL program. In 2013, students worked with One Roof, Cahaba Valley Health Care, Christ Health Center, the Jefferson County Department of Health, and Urban Ministry. Starting with the spring 2014 semester, GHSL has expanded to include international partners and projects, including Project Hearts in the Dominican Republic and an obesity prevention program in western Jamaica, along with Alabama’s Cahaba Riverkeeper and UAB’s own 1917 Clinic for patients with HIV/AIDS. The program will be coordinated out of the UAB Sparkman Center for Global Health, with courses offered in the spring terms for undergraduate students and in the summer terms for graduate students.
Junior biology major William Carter, who worked with Van Marter-Sanders on the One Roof project, credits the experience with changing his worldview in ways he hadn’t expected. Carter was energized by “the passion the One Roof staff have for their work,” he says. “They emphasize that people are people first and homeless second. A lot of homeless people really just want to be acknowledged, because they’re used to people avoiding them. Just sitting and talking with a few people was the most amazing thing I’ve experienced in a while.”
In the fall 2013 semester, Carter and his partners Voss and Dhawan—working with One Roof staff members Michelle Farley and Valerie Bouriche, along with Josh Helms, an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof—were able to put their vulnerability index to the test. They conducted surveys at three Birmingham homeless shelters, gathering valuable data for One Roof.
Lynda Wilson, Ph.D., professor and assistant dean for international affairs in the UAB School of Nursing, mentored students involved in the One Roof and Cahaba Valley Health Care projects. “What I saw was a tremendous amount of growth from the students and pride in what they were able to accomplish,” Wilson says. “It was also fun for me as a faculty member to engage outside of my normal sphere” by working with students from a range of disciplines, she adds. As the IGHSL program enters its second year, Wilson is looking forward to engaging even more faculty members in the process. “We are breaking down barriers so students can work together and we also want to offer faculty the chance to work together as well,” she says.
Serving the Underserved
Students in the IGHSL program say they enjoy working with community leaders such as Edwina Taylor, founder and executive director of Cahaba Valley Health Care (CVHC). Taylor graduated from the UAB School of Nursing in 1970 and spent 28 years as an oncology nurse at UAB Hospital before going back to the School of Nursing in the late 1990s to get her master’s degree. When she moved to the palliative care unit at Birmingham’s Cooper Green Hospital in 1999, she was struck with the plight of the Hispanic patients she met. “I saw how tough it is to access health care if you’re not born here, not insured, and don’t speak the language,” she says.
Taylor founded CVHC in 2000 to arrange health screenings in area churches. She and her partners started with optical care provided with the help of local optometrists and ophthalmologists, then added dental screenings and care. This fall, UAB medical and dental students in the IGHSL program helped conduct those screenings. They were also charged with identifying local dentists willing to provide long-term care to patients who need it. And they worked with Michael Reddy, D.M.D., dean of the School of Dentistry, to coordinate the inaugural UAB Dentistry Cares Community Day in October 2013, which provided care to more than 350 people in a single day.
Carolyn Cochran, a third-year student in the School of Dentistry, says she has benefitted from the IGHSL program’s emphasis on teamwork. “The course has been effective in promoting skills such as teaching us how to work with other professions to accomplish a common goal,” she notes. The experience has also made her more inclined to engage in future outreach efforts, she says; working on an Indian reservation is one possibility.
“The feedback from students has been very positive” for CVHC, Taylor says. “Students in health professional programs want to get close to the people they are eventually going to be serving and learn to communicate with patients effectively.”
The strength of the IGHSL program “is that it combines different professions and community leaders like Edwina Taylor,” says Nate Rogers, a third-year student in the School of Medicine. “We get to learn from her, and she learns from us."
• Learn more about the Interprofessional Global Health Service Learning Program.