(This story appears in the latest edition of the WSU Spokane Magazine)
By Kevin Dudley
Students in the health sciences programs at WSU Spokane will enter into professions that serve the community.
But instead of waiting until graduation, they can go into the community during the school year and serve through Cougs in the Community, an initiative that began in August.
Cougs in the Community offers ways for students, as well as faculty and staff, to engage in community service volunteer opportunities.
With similar models already in place at WSU Tri-Cities and WSU Vancouver, and as WSU Spokane grows into a leading health educator in the region, it was time to get on board.
“The idea is for our health sciences students to get opportunities that go beyond their clinical experience and get exposed to different nonprofit community collaborations,” said Elysia Spencer, community engagement coordinator at WSU Spokane. “They can use their skills and knowledge to make a difference, whether it’s through mentoring high school students interested in STEM fields or collaborating with a neighborhood community center to provide educational opportunities around health.”
The initiative is still young but volunteers have already participated in a handful of events.
In September, Cougs in the Community joined other organizations as part of the United Way of Spokane County’s “Day of Action.” WSU Spokane staff members assisted an elderly woman in the East Central neighborhood with yard work.
Also in September, students, staff and some family members joined with The Lands Council for its annual river cleanup project.
And coming next April, Cougs in the Community plans to be involved with the city’s “Spokane Gives” initiative.
“The short-term goals are all about building relationships and providing the students the chance to go beyond the traditional academic experience,” Spencer said, adding that many students aren’t yet aware of all the opportunities to volunteer and work with nonprofit organizations in the area.
WSU Spokane educates our future health care workforce. Rather than training students to simply treat symptoms of diseases in their patients, Cougs in the Community aims to expand upon the classroom lessons of patient-centered care, empathy and diversity awareness to help them understand and experience social and environmental factors that can lead to poor health.
“Treating a patient for something after the fact without addressing social determinants of health is just putting a Band-Aid on a bigger problem,” Spencer said. “If we can continue to expose our students to different areas that may not necessarily be addressed through a textbook we can widen their eyes to the opportunities to collaborate with other community programs.”
This school year, Cougs in the Community will focus on the East Central neighborhood as part of The Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund’s University-Community Partnership grant to reduce children’s health disparities. The neighborhood is located immediately southeast of the WSU Spokane campus.
“WSU Spokane has a student population of future health care professionals already oriented toward helping others and engaging in outreach activities,” said Sharon Smith, co-trustee of the fund. “The fund is excited to help them grow their excellent track record of commitment to the community.”
Bringing health sciences students to the East Central neighborhood will give them a glimpse at the causes of many of the medical issues they will soon be treating. Students who are part of Cougs in the Community will also be creating a healthier Spokane.
“Our students are really passionate about making a difference and helping people,” Spencer said. “Nobody comes to our campus because they like all the homework. They do it because they want to make a difference in the world.”