They tutor in after-school programs, deliver meals to the elderly, and organize outdoor activities at senior living facilities. During their junior and senior years, students in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Nursing aren’t only hard at work in the classroom or in clinical settings. As part of the college’s Academic Service Learning (ASL) program, they also give back to the community.
“So often, you think nursing school is all about technical skills you need to learn to treat patients,” says Vanessa Betancourt, a junior from Clarksville, Tennessee. “But if we’re just talking technical skills, you can teach a robot how to do that. Nursing is human. It’s about treating the whole person.”
Through the program, each student contributes 30 hours a semester over their final two years at UT. During their sophomore year, students fill out a survey describing their passions, professional interests, organizations they’d like to work with, and populations they want to serve. They are then matched with one of more than 50 community partners, from Alzheimer’s Tennessee to the American Red Cross.
After watching YouTube documentaries about people dealing with substance misuse issues in Los Angeles, Betancourt felt moved to get involved locally. She was matched with Positively Living & Choice Health Network, which provides drug and disease testing, syringe exchanges, group therapy, and other resources to the community.
“My time there is something I look forward to every week,” Betancourt says. “In nursing school, it’s kind of like you’re a baby nurse; you’re still learning how to do everything. But when I’m volunteering, those people don’t see me as a student. They see me as someone who cares for them, and who will advocate to break the stigmas surrounding addiction.”
Betancourt plans to specialize in substance abuse and pursue a nursing residency after she graduates in 2022.
“On the surface, a lot of the community service nursing students are doing may not seem to have a direct relationship to nursing,” says Karen Messing (’92, ’20), the college’s director of undergraduate programs. “But while they’re serving with organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Urban League, they are developing key behaviors: communicating effectively, reasoning critically, practicing safely, being professional, and leading effectively.”
Julia Clark, a junior from Marietta, Georgia, is two months into the second semester of her time with Boys and Girls Clubs, where she’s distributed food to families and helped students in the K–5 program with tutoring and homework. Every day, she’s as happy to see the kids as they are to see her.
“By the time I do my pediatric rotation my senior year, I’ll already have had 90 hours of service with kids,” Clark says. “It’ll help me relate to the children in the hospital—to be able to talk them down and make things a little less scary.”
Before graduating last year, Stephen Nowell (’20), who is now a nurse at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, volunteered in the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center’s after-school enrichment program. He credits the time with improving how he interacts with people and developing in him a heart for service toward others.
For the 2020–21 academic year, 279 students participating in the program are expected to volunteer nearly 16,700 hours of their time in the community.
“It brings you a sense of pride,” says Messing. “You can sing the alma mater and read the Torchbearer’s Creed. Then we go out and do it. We’re Volunteers. We’re true to what we say we are.”