Schweitzer Fellowship gives graduate students chance for growth through personal interactions

By This is Alabama, June 11, 2018

William Gafford and Newton Tinsley, two students at Samford University’s Ida Moffett School of Nursing, were at a basketball game when they saw someone beginning to have a seizure. The game was at Unless U — a Vestavia Hills-based nonprofit that provides structured educational environments for developmentally disabled adults, where Gafford and Tinsley volunteered — and the seizure victim was one of the program’s students.

As Gafford and Tinsley rushed to help the victim, who recovered, they realized that the staff hadn’t been prepared for the situation and seemed uncertain of how to respond. To fix that problem, they applied for an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, though their work with that fellowship blossomed beyond just training Unless U’s staff. The experience, Tinsley wrote, “would be one of the great joys of my life.”

The Schweitzer Fellowship, which takes its name from a Nobel Peace Prize-winning physician and humanitarian, was established in 1940. Its fellows, primarily graduate students, spend a year spearheading projects to educate and address the healthcare needs of underserved or vulnerable populations — which can be defined by age, race, or socioeconomic status, depending on the project.

Alabama’s chapter of the fellowship was founded in 2015 and is housed in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Medicine, though it accepts fellows from graduate programs at Samford, Tuskegee, Auburn, Montevallo, and more. Medical, nursing, and dental school students are most common in the program, although graduate students in other fields such as law or engineering can also be accepted.

“One of our goals is that the fellows will come to appreciate and better understand what we call the social determinants of health,” says Kristin Boggs, the Alabama Chapter’s program director. “And they do that partly through working on these year-long service projects. Basically, fellows apply with this project idea in mind and a goal of how they want to effect change, and as part of that process we help mentor them through a year where they refine what outcomes they want to see.”

Though students are encouraged to evaluate their work, the heart of the fellowship is in person-to-person interactions. “We don’t want this to be like a research project,” Boggs says. “It’s really more about the individual encounters they have and what they can learn from them.”

So while Gafford and Tinsley started out with the goal of educating the staff at Unless U with basic life support skills, their firsthand experiences with students led to their project developing other facets. They worked with students on developing better fitness and hygiene habits, which had quantifiable effects on students’ health and energy levels. Reflecting after the project was finished, Gafford and Tinsley both said that they planned to take their experience working with those vulnerable populations and apply it to their future careers in clinical practice.

That’s the fellowship’s ultimate goal, Boggs says: “We’re trying to effect positive change through the fellows’ year of service, but we also hope that they have a skill set they can carry beyond that, to what we call becoming a fellow for life.”