Serve and Learn: for Oppewal the One Transforms the Other

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December 16, 2016 | In Faculty, Global Health, Outreach, Service, Students, Teaching

Only 4,070 people live in Tyrrell County, NC, and only one primary care center exists to serve them. Should citizens require more sophisticated care, the nearest hospital is 35 miles away.

With these factors in mind, Associate Professor Sonda Oppewal takes a group of about 20 students to the county each spring break for a service learning trip.

“Our mission here at the University is to serve the people of North Carolina,” Oppewal said. This mission is what influenced her to focus her elective service course on Tyrrell County, where she and her students carry out the School of Nursing’s commitment to serve vulnerable populations and decrease health disparities.

Oppewal is no stranger to that commitment to service. After graduating from Florida State University with her BSN, she worked in Germany as a civilian nurse and then volunteered in India. She received her PhD from the University of Virginia and went on to work at East Tennessee State University, first as a nurse educator and later associate dean for practice and research. While at ETSU, she received a federal grant to start two school-based health centers in rural Hancock County, TN.

She came to the School of Nursing in 2001 and held the associate dean position for community partnerships and practice, during which she helped establish the School’s service learning course, a course that combines active service and community engagement with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience. For the course’s first three years, students traveled to Biloxi, Miss. to aid in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

But in 2009, Oppewal said she realized there were vulnerable populations in North Carolina, too, that deserved the service and attention of the course. So she focused her efforts first in Greensboro, then in Tyrrell County. Since 2010, groups of nursing, physical therapy, public health and social work students have been spending their spring breaks in the coastal county, examining numerous facets of the health of its residents.

“The focus of the course is looking at the social determinants of health and how that impacts community members in this rural county,” Oppewal said.

The group works in partnership with Tyrrell County Schools, the county health department, the senior center, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, among others. They utilize these partnerships to determine how factors such as housing, education, employment, and the environment affect citizens’ health.

Students also screen older adults for risk of falls, take blood pressure, conduct home visits, and discuss long-term healthcare and medications. This hands-on care is performed in accordance with what the county requests. Oppewal said this solid partnership between the University and Tyrrell County has brought recognition and appreciation from the Tyrrell County Board of Commissioners.

But beyond the service she and the students provide, Oppewal said the most rewarding part of the yearly trip is the influence it has on the students.

“It’s a transformative learning experience for them that they’ll value,” she said. “It’ll have an impact on their future practice.”

by Rachel Kompare, UNC ’18