How students learn by helping marginalised communities
Campus Desk :
How can you help improve the eye health of people in your local community? Offering a cup of tea and a chat might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But at the Centre for Eye Excellence (CEE) at the University of Plymouth, a brew and a friendly ear are essential, says practice manager Linda Cutler. The majority of the patients they see are from groups who find it hard to access eye care, and a relaxed atmosphere is essential to make them feel welcome.
"It makes a big difference to the groups we engage with, such as homeless people, or people who are recovering from strokes," she says. "The appointments we provide are longer than average, and they are free. We can also signpost people to other organisations if they need help - with benefits, for example. This can make a real difference: I've known homeless people who have signed up for college courses because they can now see to study."
The CEE is one of many projects running at the University of Plymouth that provides essential services to the local community. The purpose of these offerings, which cover everything from eye health to dental care and advice on family law, is to improve the lives of people who tend to fall between the cracks of standard services.
But the projects also enable students to gain real-world experience in their chosen field, meaning they become better practitioners who can go out into the world and make a difference.
Plymouth Raiders player visiting the CEE Centre where students provided sight tests for them *** Local Caption *** eye tests basketball player
At the CEE, third-year optometry students carry out eye tests under supervision, allowing them to develop vital technical, communication and empathy skills.
Cutler has also developed extensive links with local organisations such as the Stroke Association and the Salvation Army, meaning students encounter a wide range of people and problems in the course of their average day.
In social work, students have the opportunity to undertake placements with refugee families that have been relocated to Plymouth to escape persecution.
The Students and Refugees Together (Start) project has been running for the past 17 years, and has helped hundreds of people - who otherwise would have had to fend for themselves in accessing social care - make the transition to British life.
"On one hand I can't believe that a small idea has turned into a really successful charity that is still going 17 years later," says Start's founder, Avril Bellinger, honorary senior professor and chair of Start. "But on the other hand it's such a simple idea that is mutually beneficial and could be used with other groups too.
Refugees are only a burden if you make them one, and having this support in place has helped hundreds of people transform their lives - students and refugees alike."
Start has now won a European Parliament award, and is recognised as an example of good practice by the Social Care Institute for Excellence.
Likewise, at the weekly University of Plymouth Family Law Clinic, supervised students help people with all those tricky problems that occur when families break down, from divorce proceedings to arrangements around the care of children. Private family law became ineligible for legal aid in 2013, and many can't afford to pay for this vital advice.
"We wanted to do something that is helpful to the community, and to our students' education and development," says Rosie Brennan, director of the Law Clinic (which encompasses family law, refugee law and employment law). "It helps them get exposure to real issues and helps their understanding of legal context. Having to grapple with a problem so you can explain it to someone is the ultimate educational tool in any sphere."
Other projects include the Refugee Family Reunion Clinic, in partnership with the British Red Cross, where students help refugees become reunited with their families, and there's also an employment law project. "We try to do work that nobody else is doing - the bits people wouldn't normally get guidance for," says Brennan.
Making a difference to people who can't access advice is also at the heart of an initiative from the award-winning Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise, which was set up by the Peninsula Dental School at the university to raise awareness of oral health.
The enterprise focuses on marginalised groups to try to help address health inequality in the south-west. The elderly, refugees, the homeless, vulnerable school children, and adults with learning disabilities all stand to benefit.
"People with learning diabilities are very well provided for until they are 18, but when they become adults they are no longer eligible for care - they have to go and find it, and that can be really challenging," says Rob Witton, director of social engagement and community-based dentistry. "A lot of research suggests their oral healthcare needs are not met as others are."
Devonport Dental Education Facility Dental students, nurses, clinical supervisors and patients using the Devonport Dental Education Facility. Devonport Dental Clinic *** Local Caption *** Year 2 Dental students in Clinic at Derriford Dental Education Facility Derriford DEF
The programme trains adults with learning disabilities to become oral health ambassadors. Once trained, they act as key messengers for good oral care in their community, and run their own workshops for other people with learning disabilities, helping to spread the message.
The ambassadors gain a good deal from the programme, says Witton, as well as conveying the message to others. "They have to go out and do their own presentations, which builds their confidence and communication skills. Many say the project helps build self-esteem." The scheme has attracted international interest, particularly in Queensland, where practitioners are interested in applying a similar model in Indigenous Australian communities.
Another project, Open Wide, Step Inside, is run by students and aims to educate primary school children about good oral health, also inviting them into the university's dental faculty. "Many children aren't aware of the campus, so it's opening up their eyes to the university, and potentially becoming a future student," says Witton. "Educationally, it's really powerful to connect students with local communities. When they leave here we want them to be not only experts in their clinical field, but also health advocates."
Whatever the subject or the service, there's no doubt that these community projects benefit everybody involved - and feed into a wider goal of making the world a better place. "We want our students to learn through experiential, applied and active learning opportunities," says Dr Paul Warwick, Centre for Sustainable Futures lead at the university. "We want to create a higher education experience that enables our students to be change leaders, and to make a difference by improving local, national and global communities."
(Source: Developing sustainable solutions, University of Plymouth)