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Community nursing service projects empower students to make a difference

What do you learn in a class about community and population health nursing?

Unlike many nursing classes that focus on acute care, this School of Nursing course introduces students to a whole other side of nursing. Students discover vital roles nurses can play in the community, such as being a school nurse or working with vulnerable populations like those who face food insecurity.

But it’s not just a classroom-based course. Students take on projects using a Service-Learning approach in partnership with Boise State’s Service-Learning program. This approach encourages the connection of classroom learning with community engagement.

As Jeannine Suter described it, the projects are an opportunity for hands-on collaboration between students and community partners. Suter is a clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing and coordinator for the community and population health nursing lab course.

Seven nursing students stand in a kitchen, smiling in their blue scrubs and holding a plate of veggie skewers.
One group of nursing students prepared a healthy barbecue for Halloween at a food pantry.

Students assess a specific population, identify its strengths and weaknesses and then work in conjunction with the community to come up with a sustainable form of intervention – a reasonable solution that will endure even after students finish the class.

Then, they implement it.

“The main objective is learning how to work collaboratively with other community partners and develop interventions that will affect positive change,” Suter said.

What does this look like in action?

Because of pandemic limitations, previous cohorts were constrained to the classroom; according to Suter, this is the first semester since spring 2020 that students have gone back out for hands-on projects in the Treasure Valley. And she’s been nothing short of impressed by the generosity of her students.

Student projects vary from working with the YMCA’s THRIVE program to helping the Interfaith Sanctuary with their unhoused population, to partnering with the Idaho Youth Ranch’s Hays House for at-risk youth.

Baskets of pears and apples line a table at a food pantry.
Fruit are a nutritious option at one food pantry where the students served.

One group assisted the Idaho Food Bank with implementation of programs in three food pantries that encourage community members to make nutritious dietary choices to improve their health.

In addition to volunteering at the food pantries, the students created meal kits and recipe cards based on the food offered at the pantries, hosted a Halloween barbecue with healthy options and created additional educational resources for both people attending food pantries and the staff.

“The most rewarding part of the project was knowing that we are helping individuals improve their health during difficult times,” said Macaluso.

“We learned a lot about the barriers and difficulties that this population faces,” said Nicole Macaluso, a senior nursing student working on the project. “We also realized how much help/volunteers the food pantries really need in order to serve such a large population of individuals facing food disparities.”

Evidence-based work benefits Idaho

All the work the students do must be evidence-based, which means that every project is backed up by existing research. One group’s entire project hinges on students’ assessment of research and mental health programs in what Suter described as a “systems approach”.

The group is doing extensive research in partnership with Terry Reilly for a potential grant that would fund a mobile psychiatric unit – essentially, vans that would travel to bring mental healthcare out into the community.

This is important work, considering Idaho has a significant need for mental healthcare.

Senior Alli Glenn is part of another group focused on mental health issues. Her group partnered with the Marsing school district to incorporate healthy coping mechanisms for children in sixth to twelfth grades. Their goal was to apply interventions that would reduce the rates of depression in the student population.

Glenn found it hard to read survey responses from students because some “were very serious and hit home,” she said. But she enjoyed working with the school community and said “implementing the project was very successful.”

Projects with long-term value

Once students finish the class, Suter hopes they will remember what they’ve learned about specific populations and incorporate community-based service in their future nursing practices.

“I’m so proud of my students and the work they’re doing,” Suter said.

A woman selects groceries from a shelf of food at a food pantry.
Students used a “stoplight” system to indicate the nutrition of foods at pantries, with green being the most nutritious option.

Macaluso indicated her group is already contemplating the long-term effects of their project.

“As future nurses, we realize we need to view our patients as a whole [individuals] and acknowledge the disparities and challenges they may be facing,” Macaluso said. “We can intervene by helping link them to outside sources and offering them various resources to improve their health.”

Glenn agreed; “The most significant thing I learned was that many people do not know how to cope with their struggles, which is why this community has such a high rate of depression,” she said.

“This will help me as a future nurse because it will allow me to look into a patient’s social history and see how I can best benefit them by providing them with proper resources,” Glenn said.