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The Shepherd Poverty Program–The Impact of Experiential Learning

By Joseph Stiles Gannett

"I realized that in order to improve a health care system, you must do more than provide medical expertise; you must engage with the community and invest in relationships," writes Gannett (W&L '12).

“I realized that in order to improve a health care system, you must do more than provide medical expertise; you must engage with the community and invest in relationships,” writes Gannett (W&L ’12).

I arrived at Washington and Lee in 2008 with an affinity for science and baseball; both of those interests were cornerstones of my undergraduate education.  I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and was a four-year member of the Generals baseball team.  But the Shepherd Poverty Program proved to be the unifying force of my college years and was instrumental in helping me chart a career path.

My first collegiate experience was a service trip with Volunteer Venture (VV), an integral part of the Shepherd program.  VV is a student-led orientation program offered to incoming students.  Students work with nonprofit organizations and community activists in one of six underserved communities in the region. I volunteered in the coal-mining town of Harlan, Kentucky.  Like most first-years, I was full of optimism and excitement about my personal goals.  It was a pivotal time to confront the realities of multi-generational poverty and the needs of a rural mining community.  I was humbled by the barriers to success that the members of that community faced in contrast to the possibilities I envisioned for my future.  My involvement with VV continued throughout my tenure at Washington and Lee and led to my decision to pursue a minor in Poverty Studies.

In subsequent years, as my role evolved from participant to group leader to trip coordinator, I volunteered alongside students from different backgrounds with a wide range of interests.  VV motivated us to contemplate the world beyond the insular environment of a college campus.  Our aspirations changed; we came to understand that individual pursuits are enriched if we also work to enhance the opportunities for others to thrive.  But I only began to appreciate the true scope of those aspirations during my Shepherd summer internship in Camden, New Jersey.

As an intern for the Camden Citywide Diabetes Collaborative, I provided outreach and education programs for homeless and housebound diabetics in Camden.  I also worked with primary care providers to identify inefficient care and assist with the implementation of electronic health record systems.   Camden, with one of the highest crime rates in the country and over 40% of the population living below the poverty line, was an incomparable setting for this work.

In addition to my work with the Collaborative, I had an opportunity to join a summer baseball team.   After contacting several league presidents, I was invited to pitch for the Camden Punishers.  I knew nothing beyond the team name and that the manager would pick me up from work before our first game. The team car-pooled to games in the few available vehicles; therefore, the trip to the field often required a circuitous tour of Camden.   My teammates welcomed me—a kid from Seattle—and, as the season progressed, we became colleagues and friends.  They offered valuable advice about venues for my informational seminars and how to safely navigate in the city.  I tried to help them navigate Camden’s health care system, providing information on outreach groups, primary care doctors, and educational programs on health issues that they or family members were trying to manage.

During my internship, I learned about the pathophysiology of diabetes, management protocols and obstacles, and the disparate impact of the disease on the poor.  But my summer season with the Camden Punishers provided equally significant lessons.  First, I realized that in order to improve a health care system, you must do more than provide medical expertise; you must engage with the community and invest in relationships.  A shared experience enhances understanding and trust.  Both are necessary for effective communication, which is the starting point for positive healthcare outcomes.  Second, I discovered that I thrived in a city that faces challenges so unlike the other communities in which I had lived.  I am particularly indebted to my teammates who greatly enhanced the effectiveness and meaning of my work with the Collaborative.

In the fall of 2014, I returned to Camden as a first-year medical student at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.  Cooper, in the tradition of the Shepherd Poverty Program, is a mission-driven institution focused on meeting the complex needs of the City’s population.  Cooper medical students participate in a wide range of community activities.  I volunteer at the Camden chapter of Steve’s Club, which is a program that offers free fitness instruction, nutritional information, and mentorship to Camden’s youth.  Now, I am an active member of the community that welcomed me so many summers ago.  I will always be grateful to the Shepherd Program for providing opportunities that gave shape to my intellectual interests and instilled a commitment to be an engaged and empathetic professional.


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