A program designed to give UNM nursing students experience with primary health care in rural communities recently received a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, allowing the program to build on the impact it made a year ago in a small southwestern town.
The program was launched in fall 2015 when it sent eight nursing students to Chinle, Arizona, a rural area in the Navajo Reservation. Students who go through an interview process and then enroll in the community-focused healthcare class will return to Chinle this semester.
“They get to go around a really huge area of the reservation making home visits to people who have chronic diseases. The community health nurses also make visits to new mothers or babies,” Program Administrator Judy Liesveld said.
While in Chinle, students will work in clinical settings and with community health nurses.
“Community health nursing is all about health promotion and disease prevention, so community health nurses are on the front line of working with individuals, and families, and communities to promote health and wellness,” Liesveld said.
The new grant offers additional support for the faculty and infrastructure involved in running the program.
Nathania Tsosie from the Center for Native American Health - an arm of UNM’s Health Sciences Center that works to increase student and faculty awareness of Native American cultures - is one part of this newly supported infrastructure and will help prepare students for their experience.
“She is actually from the Chinle area and she’ll be coming over and working with our students and giving them some classes on cultural humility,” Liesveld said.
While the grant does not directly support students, improved infrastructure has enabled the program to increase the number of students it will send from eight to 12 this fall. Students will also have the ability to return to Chinle later for a capstone project.
“The capstone is your very last clinical (program) that you do before you graduate and it’s sort of your culminating experience that you do as a student,” Liesveld said. “We try to let people pick where they want to do their capstone at, so we’re hoping that maybe one or two of them will say they want to go back and do their capstone at Chinle.”
The grant also helps the program partner with San Juan College in Farmington, she said. Students who are co-enrolled at UNM’s College of Nursing and the San Juan College will have the opportunity to work in Chinle as well.
Farmington’s close proximity to the Navajo Nation makes this a good opportunity for San Juan nursing students to gain experience that will help them when they return home, Liesveld said. The two groups of students who have gone through the program had positive responses.
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“There’s poverty on the reservation, so some of those issues the students are confronted with as well, but there’s also so much beauty on the reservation. Not only the land, I think the area is beautiful, but the people and their families and their culture is very strong,” she said.
Liesveld worked in Chinle for three years herself when she first graduated from the University of Iowa. She said a desire to allow students to also have that experience was the impetus for this program.
“As a nurse we really need to have this incredible compassion and understanding for people, and the more exposure you can have to different areas of the country and of the world and how people live and think and work together, I just think it makes you a better nurse,” Liesveld said.
The biggest issue with running the program is maintaining a strong network of people at UNM and Chinle, she said. One of the people on the grant moved away, as did one of the Chinle nurses the program was working with, and another nurse retired.
Still, Liesveld sees many opportunities for the program to grow.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to take more than twelve students, mainly because of the capacity of the Chinle service unit,” Liesveld said. “What we could hope to do is expand it to other Indian Health Service and Service Units. There’s other opportunities to work with the Navajo Nation, and then we have lots of Pueblos in New Mexico, too, where we could look to perhaps place students in their clinical settings. So in that way we’re hoping it will grow.”
The program could also become interdisciplinary by including pharmacy or other health care students, Liesveld said.
“The ultimate goal is that some of these students will choose to maybe work out in Chinle when they graduate or pick some other rural community in New Mexico that they want to work in,” she said.