James Madison University

The Community in Community Health

Social determinants (like wealth, race and ethnicity) play a significant role in shaping an individual’s health and wellness.  This is a recurring theme in the Community Health (HTH 230) curriculum.  Students learn this information throughout the semester through lectures, readings, and documentaries.  In order to better understand the concept, students in Tim Howley’s Community Health classes are required to engage in 12-15 service learning hours in the Harrisonburg/Rockingham county community, outside the “JMU Bubble”.   

PHOTO: HTH 230

Service learning is more than volunteer hours in the community.  When students engage in service learning the service is intentionally designed to meet academic learning objectives.  While the students participate in active learning, they are also positively contributing to the community.  The relationship between the student and the agency is designed to be a mutual one. 

Jordan Keith (’15) recognized the value of this relationship.  In her final paper for the class, she wrote “I had always enjoyed engaging in community service but I did not fully understand the idea of gaining something; knowledge.” 

JMU’s Community Service Learning Department (CSL) collaborates with academic classes to place students with local agencies.  Through CSL, Community Health students were placed in agencies like the Boys and Girls Club, local nursing homes, and Mercy House.  At these agencies students see first hand some of the issues that have been talked about in class.  Keith discussed this connection in her paper.  She wrote, “Working in the food pantry taught me endless facts about the populations and needs of the Harrisonburg community.  The service-learning aspect of this class expanded and enriched my appreciation for meeting the needs of people in a community.”

Another student, Meg Dmuchowski (’15) also connected her service learning to her academic preparation.  In her final paper she shared “Before I volunteered at the nursing home I was uncomfortable around elders.  After interacting and doing activities with them weekly I became more comfortable around them.  With this experience I realized that whatever age group I end up working with in the future I will be comfortable around them and will be able to help improve the quality of someone’s life at any age by working in the health field.”

As a culminating activity for the service learning experience, students are required to present their experiences in a poster presentation.  Students share what they learned, how it connects to course material and how they have been impacted by the experience.  Overall, students are enthusiastic and excited to share their experiences.  Many of them use words like eye-opening, surprised, complicated, and inspired to describe their experiences.

Howley first required service learning in spring 2013.  Since then, community health students in his classes have collectively participated in over 6,000 service hours in the community!

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