Student-led service learning initiatives engage med students with local communities

January 21, 2016

Studying and practicing medicine is only one part of being a medical student and a physician; another important part is patient and community engagement, which helps med students truly become healers.

The Office of Medical Student Service Learning connects students with hands-on learning experiences that address community and/or partner needs.  | Photo By Tim Yates

For IU School of Medicine students, engagement with neighborhoods and people in their campus communities is a core focus of training; it advances population health goals by improving treatment outcomes in Indiana and beyond. Yet, for busy medical students, knowing where to start isn’t always easy.

The IU School of Medicine Office of Medical Student Service Learning helps students find structured learning experiences that address a specific community partner or need. Service learning projects include pre-experience orientation, engage students in a service experience, and conclude with a post-experience reflection. From start to finish, the experience is intended to connect community issues with institutional learning objectives.

The areas of focus for medical student service learning include:

  • Curricular-based service learning: Course or competency-focused
  • Student service initiatives: Student-led, project-based service experiences

Lisa Christy, with Medical Service Learning, encourages students to take the general idea of community engagement and turn it into a service learning focused engagement.

“My approach to service-learning at IUSM is to foster the development of patient-centered physicians through real world involvement,” said Christy, “The collaboration between this office, faculty, students, and the community is essential to this distinct lifelong learning experience.”

Kayla Swick, a fourth-year medical student pursuing a career in internal medicine at the Indianapolis campus recently completed a service learning project aimed at helping local residents learn how to shop for healthy food and prepare healthy meals on a budget – and with limited resources.

Swick has a lifelong passion for cooking and meal planning and naturally leaned toward food and nutrition when choosing a service-learning project. With this focus in mind, she embarked on a journey to teach residents of underserved communities how to prepare and cook healthy meals using only ingredients from Garden on the Go, a local food pantry that makes weekly indoor stops at partner locations in Indianapolis neighborhoods with limited availability to healthy food choices.

Swick quickly realized that she’d taken for granted the easy access she had to healthy and whole food items at the grocery store she normally visited. Not knowing what she’d find at the food pantry, Swick had to come up with an idea for a healthy meal that she could prepare using only the ingredients available at Garden on the Go.

Since she was visiting Garden on the Go around Thanksgiving, she found that availability for basic food items like beans and broth were severely limited.

“My heart ached for people who have to rely on food pantries to eat,” Swick said, “I couldn’t imagine, especially at time where most people feast, not finding much to eat from the local food pantry.”

After her first recipe choice, vegetarian chili, was ruled out due to a lack of beans, she chose to make a vegetable soup with basic veggies like onion, celery, broth, diced tomatoes and a mix that included carrots, corn, green beans, peas and potatoes. The recipe requires only minimal kitchen tools including a stove, cutting board, soup pot and spoon.

“This project really opened my eyes to the struggle this underserved population has when it comes to nutrition,” Swick said, “Improving the nutrition in this population will go further to improving overall health more so than anything we do as physicians in the clinic.”

The IU School of Medicine Office of Medical Student Service Learning can help connect students with community partners while providing funding, guidance and feedback for service learning and community service ideas and projects. To develop an idea for service or learn more about service learning, visit or email Lisa Christy at