Nursing Students Learn through Real-World Experience

Feb 17, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by

By Laura Larsson, PhD, MPH, RN, is an assistant professor at the College of Nursing, Montana State University and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar (2010 – 2013)


What started as a place for nursing students to earn supplemental clinical hours toward their public health course has evolved into a wonderful community-academic partnership that has just celebrated its 5th anniversary.

As a nurse educator, my first thought when I decided to offer students the chance to gain extra hours at the food bank was how beneficial such a partnership would be for my students. They would get to work with families experiencing food scarcity, see a wider variety of community members than they did in the hospital setting, and gain first-hand experience with where the strengths and weaknesses are in the “safety net.”

I imagined projects where concepts from the community would converge with concepts from individual-level care, and the students would better understand that nursing cannot operate in a silo.

In the past five years, this project has been all of that and even more.

During the spring of 2008, two students started the Nurse’s Desk at our local food bank in Bozeman, Mont., holding hours every Friday afternoon. Sponsored by the local federally qualified health center, they offered blood pressure and casual blood glucose testing, and referral services to clients as they waited for their supply of food.

Throughout that spring, the students grew markedly in their appreciation for the diverse and challenging circumstances their clients faced. They did perform blood pressure and blood glucose checks, but mostly they listened. They heard stories that strained their catalogue of experience and met people whose willpower and resilience humbled them. The clients, the volunteers, and the students insisted the Nurse’s Desk continue.

Through the next few years, the Nurse’s Desk would reappear each spring and the students would go through the now-familiar process. At the start of term they needed to gain the confidence to invite people to come visit the Nurse’s Desk and have their blood pressure taken. By midterm the students had built rapport with the clients and were functioning as part of the team at the food bank—stocking shelves and helping unload food supplies when the waiting room was empty. At semester end, the students had developed to wanting to do more to follow-up on the difficult cases. They wanted to know if people they had referred for acute illnesses, low-cost medications, children’s insurance and chronic conditions like depression, hypertension, and diabetes were getting care.

The Nurse’s Desk had turned into a mobile outreach center where people who had either lost trust in the health care system or did not think they had access to it could reengage in a basic conversation about their health. The student nurses identified high rates of hypertension and hyperglycemia and learned that the majority had not seen a care provider in the past 12 months.

The food bank clients have found the students to be humble, knowledgeable and approachable. The students have found the clients to be earnest, smart, and engaging people—not as unlike themselves as they might have thought.

This spring the students are working to overcome the hurdles to an operational referral system. They are working with the food bank clients to learn whether phone numbers or referral cards might provide a way for the students to check back to learn if the clients were now seeking care from the health care community, and if the Nurse’s Desk could measurably influence vulnerable clients outside of the system to find their way to care.

Read more about nurses working to alleviate hunger in their communities.

Read more about Larsson’s work as an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.