Yaena Min, a graduate student in the School of Pharmacy, has been interviewing seniors to study the effects of pain medications on sleep patterns.

Better together: Grad students make a lasting impact on the community

VCU graduate students make a lasting impact on the local community and vice versa

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In the crowds of ecstatic family and friends at recent Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work commencement ceremonies, one of the most enthusiastic well-wishers has attended in an almost official capacity. Andrea Wiley, director of clinical services at Rubicon, a Richmond-based provider of chemical dependency treatment services, is always in the audience, cheering loudly for the former Rubicon interns among the newest graduates.

“They may as well be my own children the way I’m up there screaming at them and embarrassing them,” Wiley said. “But I want them to know how much I appreciate what they’ve done for us.”

By necessity, graduate students in certain disciplines at VCU head off campus into the broader community to study, conduct research and work in their chosen fields. The students give as much as they get. Their classroom learning crystallizes when exposed to the elements of real-world practice, while their searching, eager efforts benefit a range of organizations, neighborhoods and individuals. Their participation with local businesses, schools, governments and other groups occurs in a variety of areas, ranging from health care to social work and education.

For the community partners, VCU graduate students can prove to be a godsend, supplying skilled workers determined to contribute.

For instance, Wiley said Rubicon leans heavily on VCU graduate students. In fact, she joked, “they practically staff the place.”

In return, students say the off-campus education is critical.

“It is one of the most effective ways to learn, putting these things you are taught in class directly into practice,” said Rachel Kunemund, a graduate student in the School of Education who teaches at the Faison School for Autism in Richmond. “It’s like studying anything else. If you hear it in class but don’t review or practice it shortly after, it is more difficult to do anything other than to just learn the information on a superficial or factual level. … Learning something in class … and then being given the opportunity to use it or put it into practice the next day at work makes for a higher level of learning.”

VCU graduate student Toby Vernon has taken his interest in urban regional planning, education, sustainable living and healthy eating to work with Backyard Farmer and Greater Richmond Fit4Kids to establish learning gardens at schools. Vernon, who is working on master’s degrees in both urban regional planning and public administration, estimates he has worked on at least 25 learning gardens in the area, and he’s helped write standardized learning programs that teachers can use to take advantage of the gardens as teaching tools. He’s also worked on the “Get Fresh East End! Healthy Corner Store” initiative designed to improve the inventory of healthy foods, including fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, in convenience stores in the East End.

Vernon, who spent a decade as a nomadic chef with stops at establishments in the United States, Western Europe and Latin America, is well-traveled and well-educated, and he is brimming with ideas for ways to improve the world, especially on issues related to food access and equity. However, one of the most critical lessons Vernon has learned through his community work at VCU is when to keep all that knowledge to himself – when to hold onto his ideas and to hear someone else’s.

In particular, he has learned that if he approaches the people he hopes to help with a lecture or instructions, his audience likely will tune him out and he will get nowhere. However, when he engages them and gives them a chance to provide their perspective, they become more interested partners. Just as importantly, Vernon learns from them and his ideas get better.

“It’s one reason I feel very passionate about working in the community and working with individuals in their given context,” Vernon said. “That kind of work keeps me thinking creatively and dynamically, and it keeps me from the problem of myopic thinking.”

Alexandra Cornell is studying for a master’s degree in the School of Social Work. As part of her studies, she is mandated to work 21 hours per week at Rubicon, under Wiley’s direction. She works with 10 clients on a routine basis, performing case management, connecting them with resources and helping with treatment questions. She also runs a women’s substance abuse group.

Cornell said it is an ideal environment for her to grow professionally.

“I’ve had so many great experiences there,” Cornell said. “I’ve seen what this field is like and learned about working with these individuals. Rubicon prides itself on teaching us, too. I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Wiley said Cornell resembles many of her VCU predecessors in her determination to get involved rather than avoid the fray. “She doesn’t just want to observe,” Wiley said. “She wants to do.”

That embrace of real-world opportunities allows Cornell and other interns to test their knowledge and match it to their experiences, Wiley said.

“They find out what their style is, and who they are as counselors and professional social workers,” Wiley said. “It gets them ready for the next step.”

In a similar fashion, Kunemund said she has found her footing as a teacher at the Faison School, solidifying her interest in teaching young children with autism and other severe disabilities. Kunemund has worked at the Faison School since June 2011. She’s steadily gained increased responsibility, advancing from instructional assistant to lead instructional assistant to a classroom teacher for eight students.

Kunemund said the pairing of coursework and field work has worked in tandem to prepare her for greater professional challenges. In addition, Faison has an education and training program that supplements her VCU education.

“VCU’s program has had a huge impact on my ability to work at the Faison School,” Kunemund said. “It offered the exact coursework I needed to learn how to teach and educate students diagnosed with intellectual and physical disabilities who may require more supports.”

Graduate students’ engagement with the community sometimes takes the form of research.

Yaena Min, a graduate student in the School of Pharmacy, is researching the effects of pain medications on sleep patterns for seniors. Central to her work are regular interviews with residents at Dominion Place and Imperial Plaza, senior living facilities in Richmond.

Min entered graduate school in the School of Pharmacy as a confirmed introvert. She lacked confidence in her personal interactions with patients, and it made her wary of pursuing some of her interests, including research. However, she pressed forward.

“I am a shy person, and I am not that talkative,” Min said. “It required more energy to meet new people and conduct the interview with the participants. So I just practiced a lot, such as conducting a medication review, and I tried to be an extrovert and I realized that it just requires more energy and that I can do this and I was ready to face the dynamic. I really got comfortable and was ready to react instantly in any situation when I was interviewing.”

Min has enjoyed developing relationships with the seniors, and she has even proved to be a resource for them, helping direct them to other sources for help when they bring up issues unrelated to Min’s research.

Min said she now has the confidence to pursue field research that involves extensive interviews. She also believes the in-depth interaction with individuals will help her, because “There are gray areas in pharmacy where we can’t find the answers in the databases. We can obtain more qualitative information by face-to-face interviews and interactions with people.”

Applying the lessons of the classroom to community needs – and seeing them work – brings a different type of satisfaction than a well-argued essay or an aced exam. Vernon said he feels great reward witnessing schoolchildren grow excited about the food they’ve grown in a community garden and watching them become interested in agriculture and foods they would normally ignore.

“It helps me to look at how this is a problem on a human scale, rather than staying lofty and ‘macro’ about it,” Vernon said. “Seeing the effect on people is much more moving than reading about it in a book.”

Vernon said he’s noticed many signs that VCU encourages its students to engage with the Richmond community with their work – a practice he views as “an ethical imperative” for the university, particularly in light of its status as a public institution located in a dynamic urban environment.

Fulfilling that imperative has an obvious impact on the community at large and on its many components. For some organizations, such as Rubicon, the students become an integral part of the operation.

“The students bring a freshness and an excitement to our offices that we love,” Wiley said. “They bring a lot of new knowledge, and they bring a sensitivity for our patients and our clients. We really value their presence here. Honestly, I don’t know what we’d do without them.”


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