UA Graduate Student Plans to Use Her New City Council Seat to Create Social Change

After 16 years of working in the child welfare system, Holly Barnett had maxed out her options for moving up in the field.

With hopes of advancing her career, Barnett, a social worker who lives in West Blocton, Ala., decided to go back to school at the University of Alabama, a Sullivan Foundation partner school. Little did she know that she’d be inspired by her college courses to run for—and win—a city council seat.

Related: University of Alabama creates free program to help children with disabilities and developmental delays

“I wanted to help license foster homes, and in order to do that, I had to have a higher degree,” said Barnett, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Alabama. “I was encouraged by a former supervisor to pursue a master’s degree. When I applied to UA, I honestly didn’t think I’d get in because it had been so long since I was in college. But UA worked with me.”

Barnett enrolled at UA in the fall of 2019 in the Master of Social Work distance learning program.

“I’m a married, 39-year-old, working mom of a two-year-old daughter,” said Barnett. “So even though UA is basically in my backyard, going to in-person class is not feasible for somebody like me. Even though I don’t see my professors face-to-face, they’ve been great with answering all my questions. And I’ve received a ton of support from my online classmates. I’ve gained more knowledge in the field of social work while taking online classes at UA than I have in all my years of working in the child welfare system.”

this is a picture of Holly Barnett, city council member in West Blocton, Alabama, with her husband and daughter

Holly Barnett brought her husband and daughter along when she was sworn into office.

Last spring, Barnett took two social work courses that would change the direction of her life: social work practice with community, taught by Dr. Carol Drolen, associate professor of social work, and advanced social welfare policy analysis, taught by Dr. Karen Starks, assistant professor of social work.

Through research required for the courses, Barnett discovered there was an exceptionally high poverty rate in West Blocton, a small town of 1,239 people, in addition to a particularly high disability rate.

Related: University of Alabama honors two students, one administrator, with Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards

When she started looking into the city’s laws and attending town hall meetings (also required for the policy course), she realized that some important issues, such as food security and bill assistance, were not being addressed.

“People are struggling to even pay their water bills,” Barnett said. “There are areas that need to be brought to light in my town, with the poverty and disability rate so high, only having one food bank in town that requires individuals to show proof they need assistance, not having a grocery store, no dentist. There are things I want to help my town do, to create resources to better ourselves, to better our town.”

This photo shows Holly Barnett on the day she was sworn in as a city council member in West Blocton, Alabama

Holly Barnett

Even though holding political office was far beyond what she had planned for her life, she decided to run for a city council seat in July of 2020, with a vision to help strengthen the town’s current assets and develop new ones to address its challenges. She ran her campaign with just $150 and the help of her husband, daughter and a few family members and friends. She spent hundreds of hours in her neighbors’ living rooms, conveying her vision to bring needed help and change to their town.

Barnett won the election in August and was sworn into office at the beginning of November.

She will graduate from UA in May 2021 and hopes to continue using her knowledge of social work to benefit the residents of West Blocton. “To me,” she said, “that’s the ideal social worker: to help, encourage, empathize and support those in our community to be the change and to advocate for a better community.”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of Alabama website.

University of Virginia Nursing Students Hone Their Skills on the Streets

It’s a Sunday evening, about suppertime, and the patient— a 71-year-old man with type 1 diabetes—lolls in and out of consciousness deep in the folds of an overstuffed armchair, a NASCAR race on TV and the smells of the dinner, not yet served, mixing with the pulpy heat of the woodstove.

University of Virginia nursing student Ryan Thomas, who moments before was riding shotgun in an ambulance, a map sprawled across his lap, expertly snaps on a pair of blue rubber gloves and addresses the patient whose family dialed 9-1-1 when he became unresponsive.

“Carl?” [not his real name] Thomas says gently, touching the man’s arm, “Do you know what year it is?”

No response.

CARL,” Thomas booms, now twice as loud. “CAN YOU TELL ME YOUR LAST NAME?”

On this evening, the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad team—a group that includes Thomas, Haydon Pitchford, Taylor Vest, David Clarke and Kassie Sadler—is responsible for covering the roughly 260 square miles that make up this portion of the county. WARS, as it’s known, is one of a dwindling number of all-volunteer rescue squads in the area. With eight trucks, two kayaks, and bags of mobile medical supplies, they respond to calls across the socio-economic and situational spectrum: from the paved cul-de-sacs in high-end subdivisions to pitted-out dirt roads and modest trailers and cabins deep in the Blue Ridge foothills.

Their call tonight is like a well-choreographed dance; they pivot easily around the patient and one another with practiced grace. This is the Sunday night crew, on each week from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. the next morning, and for one 24-hour shift every six weeks.

To Thomas, 22, an advanced EMT, it’s the best part of nursing.

Ryan Thomas, a UVA fourth-year nursing student, volunteers with the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad team. (Photo by Christine Phelan Kueter, UVA School of Nursing)

“Yes, I wanted to give back to my community in a genuine, unique way, and yes, I want to hone my skills,” says Thomas, of Lovettsville, who first volunteered for his hometown rescue squad at age 16. “But I’m also here for the fun, even though it’s not strictly fun: the thrills, the camaraderie of the team, and to have this second family.”

“Look for the helpers” in tough situations, Mister Rogers advised. But if nursing schools are filled to the brim with those wishing to do good, some—including students Thomas, Sam Anderson, Aliana Kyle, Raniyah Majied and Alice Thomson, along with alumnus Andrew Baxter, Charlottesville’s fire chief, along with many, many others—embrace the role even more deeply. They are emergency responders, every inch of them a helper.

Related: Rollins College remembers 2001 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner Mister Rogers

Seeing Beyond the Hospital
For some, emergency response work made visible a path to nursing school at the University of Virginia, a Sullivan Foundation partner school. That was true for Alice Thomson who, even as she changed academic pursuits—first English, then public policy, then government relations—kept the constant of volunteering as an emergency responder, which ultimately led her to nursing.

“The best way I can describe nursing,” says Thomson, now in her first year of UVA’s clinical nurse leader master’s program, “is that, once I was doing it, I realized it was a lifelong dream I never knew I had.”

She’s also found the emergency work deeply influences her nursing, particularly in her current role in UVA’s Emergency Department, where so much depends on a broad understanding of a patient’s situation—details emergency responders often see and describe to providers at the ambulance/hospital door hand-off.

“It’s shown me how important it is to know what that patient’s life is like when they dial 9-1-1,” says Thomson, who volunteers each Wednesday as fire captain at Seminole Fire and Rescue in Charlottesville. “The more information you have from the very beginning, the more holistic your picture is going to be for what your patient really needs.”

That holistic vantage is one that Chief Baxter, who earned his B.S. in nursing from UVA in 1994, sees and appreciates, too. Baxter came to nursing after accepting a job with UVA Hospital’s weight and lift team in 1990, observing emergency responders on the Pegasus helicopter and “quickly realizing, in terms of translating my interests into education and a career, that the nursing profession was the best way to do that.”

During nursing school, Baxter volunteered with Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad, and appreciated how its practical, boots-on-the-ground work strengthened his experience, critical thinking and leadership skills, while profoundly deepening his understanding of the community. It was a view, he recalls, of the social determinants of health that work in the hospital simply didn’t offer.

As an emergency responder, “You’re in people’s homes, you’re in their lives at times when they’re incredibly vulnerable, and it’s an incredibly intimate experience,” he explains. “You see people in a way that’s pretty rare. You could probably ask them those same questions in a primary care setting, but to be in their home, or to interact with them if they’re homeless—well, it’s a whole different level of understanding.”

“There’s a lot of things that you see that a lot of people will never see in their life,” Thomas adds, “and it’s a privilege to be part of that experience.”

Learning Kindness
For some, emergency response work provides a litmus test. Raniyah Majied took EMT classes at her Salem high school to see whether she could stomach a career in health care, in the process transitioning from taking classes to “make a grade” to “really wanting to understand the reasons why we do what we do” during emergency calls.

In addition to the technical, communication and critical thinking skills she gleaned from the volunteer work, Majied also found great meaning in offering small kindnesses, especially for isolated patients who, especially in older age, had few relationships. Even as she begins clinical rotations this spring, it’s already developed in her a love of geriatric nursing.

Nursing student and emergency response volunteer Raniyah Majied says working with isolated, elderly patients on call helped her realize her passion for geriatric nursing. (Photo by Christine Phelan Kueter, UVA School of Nursing)

“Sometimes they’d say, ‘I called my daughter, but she didn’t answer,’ or, ‘I haven’t seen my kids in a really long time,’ or, ‘My spouse passed away,’” Majied says. “As a nurse, I’ll get a lot of opportunities to have these connections with people. I’m excited to be a nurse and have way more time with them than I do as an EMT.”

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Given their exposure to humanity across the spectrum, emergency responders’ situational agility, in turn, strengthens their confidence, poise and kindness.

“You’re going into people’s homes where they’re sick, and lying in bed,” second-year nursing student Sam Anderson explains. “So a lot of it is using very comfortable language with patients, being very polite and courteous, and giving them autonomy, or as much autonomy as possible, with the decision about how to proceed forward.”

That kindness and calm, Baxter says, fosters trust and are traits people remember.

“People don’t write and tell me, ‘Boy, your fire crews did a great job deploying that inch and three-quarters attack line on that house fire,’” he laughs. “They write and say, ‘I can’t believe the care that your crew took so I could go back in the house and get my grandmother’s wedding dress.’ And that’s just phenomenal.”

Bringing it Back to the Classroom
Emergency responders aren’t just a boon in disaster. These student volunteers are influential in the nursing classroom, too, where nursing professor Bethany Coyne says they enrich and broaden discussions of topics that lie beyond skills-based competencies, like the interconnectedness of education and health, ethics case studies, and the social determinants of health.

They also model confidence and calm, traits that are noted assets at the bedside and in the classroom. Their peers, Coyne says, take note—and heart—at their ability to think critically.

“They have all these experiences that are beyond the hospital walls,” Coyne says, “and they’ve seen patients and clients outside of the inpatient setting, and that perspective is really valuable.”

Thomson agrees that emergency work has strengthened her nurse’s confidence.

“You can have imposter syndrome when you walk into a patient’s room,” she says. Being a firefighter “has really given me a sense of confidence that I translate into patient care. If you can think on your feet and you can do something with nothing, you’re on your way to being a great nurse.”

Building Confidence
Perhaps most of all, emergency responders do what they do to give back. Aliana Kyle, who grew up in Warrenton, became an EMT as a high school junior, driven by an invisible but palpable sense of purpose and vision. These days, her weekly volunteer work with the Seminole Fire Station on the northern side of Charlottesville—while challenging—has scratched an itch she felt as an EMT to learn firefighting and encouraged her to develop the kind of mental and physical problem-solving skills she says she couldn’t necessarily get from a classroom, in a lab, or by reading a book.

Currently in training, Kyle has spent the last year learning the ropes: how to suit up in more than 40 pounds of gear in less than two minutes, how to properly flow water lines and hoses, how to queue engines and “throw” ladders, even how to use a chainsaw while perched on a roof. It’s exciting, exhilarating work, she says, and part of “doing hard things to achieve personal growth.”

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And grow and learn, they do. Thomas, now an emergency responder for a half-dozen years, says emergency work has helped him understand the importance of resilience and well-being, particularly as he deals with difficult calls. Coming into contact with a range of human conditions, Thomas says, both challenges and strengthens his nursing—a field he says he wouldn’t have found without being an emergency responder first.

That he’s created a tightknit second family with his Sunday night crew is a powerful motivator to keep volunteering, too, reinforcing as it does the value of teamwork, friendship and support.

“I’m definitely more confident because I do this,” says Thomas, who graduates this spring and has plans to remain in Charlottesville, continuing his volunteer work with WARS. “With my team, I know we can together really help those who need it.”

That includes people like Carl, who, from his living room chair, received two bags of intravenous fluids from Thomas and Pitchford before groggily coming to, blinking open his eyes, and beginning to pick at a plate of peanut butter crackers and glass of orange juice from his mother that would keep his blood sugar stable and in the safe zone.

He even gets the team to chuckle when Thomas—to ensure that he’s fully functioning and doesn’t need a trip by ambulance to the emergency room—asks him who the president of the United States is.

“Somebody who’s about to find himself impeached,” drawls Carl, a half smile on his face, to which Thomas replies, “I think someone’s feeling better.”

This story was edited slightly from the original article appearing on the University of Virginia website.


Winthrop University Breaks Record for Freshman Applications

For the second consecutive year, a record number of prospective students have applied for admission to the incoming Winthrop University Class of 2024.

The current recruiting season has seen applications for the fall 2020 freshman class—which numbered 6,125 as of February 5—eclipse the previous mark of 6,101 from fall 2019. The strong application numbers yielded a freshman class that was Winthrop’s largest in four years.

Related: High student voter turnout wins award for Winthrop University

Winthrop University is a partner school of the Sullivan Foundation.

“Our campus community has devoted much time and effort in recent years to strengthening our reputation and increasing the number of students taking advantage of the Winthrop experience, goals laid out in the Winthrop Plan,” said President Dan Mahony. “With our highest rating in 25 years in U.S. News’ America’s Best Colleges and other endorsements for our quality, value and diversity, this record interest at the application phase is evidence that our offerings are resonating with prospective students and families.”

Vice President for Access and Enrollment Management Eduardo Prieto concurred, noting that applications to Winthrop University are up across several South Carolina markets, including some major population centers.

“Our largest increases have been in York County, the greater Columbia metro area and Florence, in addition to extending our reach out to Aiken and Myrtle Beach. We have also remained consistent in Charleston and Greenville/Spartanburg and are up slightly in out-of-state markets like New York and Massachusetts,” said Prieto. “The value of a Winthrop degree and overall experience is very appealing for students and families looking for a combination of best fit and return on investment.”

In addition to the efforts of the campus community, Mahony credited a strong and consistent enrollment marketing plan for the record number of applications.

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“We have collectively offered unparalleled customer service and a welcoming environment where prospective students are treated like family,” he noted. “The growing interest in Winthrop among prospective freshmen demonstrates that this strong student-centered focus at the university is working.”

During the 2019-20 recruitment season there has been an increase in travel across the state with a strong presence in geographic areas that have historically produced successful Winthrop students. The recruitment team has put additional emphasis on digital communications and the value of the Winthrop experience, which offers national-caliber academics, civic engagement opportunities, high quality undergraduate research experiences, and global connections, all in a beautiful campus setting.

Until this recruitment cycle, Winthrop has traditionally been a rolling admissions cycle institution. However, an early application deadline of Nov. 1 extended offers of acceptance to qualified applicants by Dec. 1. Similarly, all applicants submitting an application prior to Feb. 1 are to receive notifications by Feb. 15. All applications received after Feb. 1 will continue to be received and reviewed until the start of the fall 2020 semester.

This article originally appeared on the Winthrop University website.

Campus Recycling Program Makes Comeback at Saint Leo University

After shutting down its campus recycling program a few years ago due to contaminated bins, Sullivan Foundation partner school Saint Leo University is moving heavily into recycling again, the university announced recently.

The University Senate’s Environmental Committee, along with Facilities and Dining Services, has reinstated the campus recycling program with a mission to provide a clean, safe and healthy environment for everyone. “Its vision is to be forward-thinking in its implementation of net positive projects, contributing more than is taken and aspiring to have a broad positive effect that goes beyond reducing the university’s environmental impact,” Saint Leo University said in the announcement.

Related: How did one of America’s greenest campuses get so green?

The campus recycling program had to be discontinued a few years ago due to costly fines for contaminated recycling bins. Saint Leo was fined $10,000 for each recycling bin contaminated with food or other non-recyclable waste.

Pizza boxes are a common culprit in the contamination of campus recycling bins. “If there is even one piece of pizza in one box in a recycling dumpster, the entire container is considered contaminated and none of the material inside can be recycled,” the university noted.

Between January and October 2019, Saint Leo University took a number of steps to get back into the recycling groove. In January, students were hired through the federal work-study program to assist with University Campus recycling collections. Additionally, all of the paper products used by Dining Services are now biodegradable, and paper straws are used as often as possible except when they cannot be sourced.

Related: Sullivan Foundation offers Summer 2020 study-abroad opportunity in Scotland

Saint Leo’s Dining Services also now turns meat and vegetable scraps into stocks and soups or gives them to local farmers as feed for their animals.

Altogether, the university recycled 17 tons of material between January and October, including 1.7 tons of paper, 0.85 tons of plastic, 0.68 tons of aluminum and 13.77 tons of cardboard.

The university notes that its recycling efforts have conserved resources, saving 34,809 kilowatt hours of electricity; 206 mature trees; 108,290 gallons of water; 67 cubic yards of landfill airspace; and three metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

This story was adapted from the original article appearing on the Saint Leo University website.