Rutgers Health launches pilot program combining volunteerism and service learning

Organizers behind Rutgers Health Service Corps seek recruits 

Second-year medical student Kritika Sharma spent the past semester volunteering at University Hospital in Newark to help women screen for breast cancer. She was part of a team of students at New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers Health providing cancer screening education and assistance in Newark and New Brunswick.

This combination of volunteerism and service learning, organized through a pilot program of the Rutgers Health Service Corps, increased breast cancer screenings for uninsured or underinsured women ages 40 to 75 visiting the emergency department at University Hospital in Newark and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick.

“Working in the Newark community allowed me to unveil the barriers our patients face in receiving care,” Sharma, a Newark resident and first-generation student, said. “This opportunity not only granted me time, but provided a unique lens to truly understand patients beyond the conventional physician-patient dynamic.”

RHSC, having completed its pilot phase and poised for launch, is a new program connecting students, faculty and staff with impactful service-learning opportunities across various health care and community settings.

It is recruiting its inaugural cohort of student members.

Participants undergo core curriculum training for public and population health service, followed by placement in service-learning projects aligned with their interests. Service activities may address critical health topics, including cancer screening, chronic disease management, substance abuse prevention, food insecurity, mental health promotion and emergency preparedness. Faculty and staff can engage in service as well as mentor or advise students.

As the program expands, service-learning opportunities for members will increase, with several new focus areas currently in development.

“Our Rutgers Health community has a desire to make a difference and engage people where they live, work and play, to improve health and reduce disparities,” Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences Chancellor Brian Strom, who leads Rutgers Health, said. “We seek to help people get and stay healthy, rather than only treating them when they get sick. This initiative also serves as part of Rutgers Health’s commitment to making the university a leader in service learning.”

The ultimate goal is to create a national model for public universities, improving health and health equity in the state while increasing the number and diversity of Rutgers students pursuing careers in health professions, public health and social services.

An example of RHSC efforts is the Students for Cancer Awareness and Navigating Screenings, or SCANS, team, which, under the mentorship of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School chair and chief of service of radiology, provides cancer screening education and assistance in Newark and New Brunswick.

RHSC is led by Humaira Chaudhry, chair and associate professor of the Department of Radiology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School; Vince Silenzio, a professor in the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers School of Public Health; John Hemphill, program manager at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences; Alex Ruiz, executive director of Rutgers Environmental Health and Safety and the university safety officer; and Ethan Halm, professor in the Department of Medicine at RWJ Medical School and the vice chancellor for population health.

Corps leaders said the program, rooted in interdisciplinary collaboration, harnesses students’ desire to make a tangible difference in their community, improve health outcomes and reduce disparities. Participants will come from all Rutgers Health schools and Newark, New Brunswick and Camden campuses.

All students, faculty and staff are welcome to apply to RHSC. Members will be accepted based on interests and experiences, the ability to think critically and work in interprofessional teams, and their desire to serve the community. Applications become available at the beginning of fall and spring semesters. Service hours may count as credits toward a student’s degree, depending on their program and its requirements.