Student Spotlight: Alexandria Irace ’15 on the Health of Communities

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Alexandria with her NEAT mentee

Service-Learning courses can involve a wide range of activities that extend well beyond traditional volunteer service. For The Health of Communities with Professor Peggy Carey Best, this means conducting research with real-world applications, right here in Middletown. In addition to reading and discussing literature on public health, medicine, and ethics, students serve as research assistants at the nearby Community Health Center, where they grapple with once-theoretical issues related to health inequity and community-based research.

To learn more about this experience, I spoke with Alexandria Irace ’15, who took The Health of Communities last semester and will be working on her CHC project through April. She is a double in Neuroscience & Behavior and Italian Studies, as well as a mentor for Wesleyan’s NEAT Mentoring Program, a steering committee member for Wesleyan Women in Science, a sister of Rho Epsilon Pi, and the co-creator and editor of Wesleyan’s food blog, WesStuffed.

Hi Alex! Can you tell me about your research at the CHC?
I am working with Anna Michalowski (a fellow senior) on a research project that aims to increase enrollment in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) for the treatment of pediatric post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the CHC. Given the statistics of children who have been exposed to potentially traumatic events, our team believes that there is significant under-enrollment in TF-CBT, which means that children who are experiencing or are in the process of developing PTSD are not being identified. To attempt to increase enrollment, we are hoping to implement a new pediatric trauma screen that will be used during children’s medical and behavioral health appointments at the CHC. Children who show signs of trauma exposure through this screen will be identified as candidates for TF-CBT.

Some things that Anna and I have been working on include editing the IRB proposal that needs to be reviewed in order to allow the pediatric trauma screen to be used during healthcare appointments, searching for literature with updated statistics and information about the use of TF-CBT in treating PTSD, and making an annotated bibliography to summarize our findings (which will be incorporated into the IRB proposal).

In the spring semester, we hope to have the IRB proposal passed so that we can begin collecting data on the effectiveness of the pediatric trauma screen.

Is there a practical application for your research? What will the CHC do with the findings of your project?
If successful, this pediatric trauma screen may serve as a long-term addition to medical and behavioral care appointments for children at the CHC.

Why did you sign up for this course?
I signed up for this course after talking with a student who had taken the course last year and absolutely loved it. She said that it really inspired her to get more involved in the field of public health and that working on her research project was a great practical application of the concepts she was learning in class. Having never taken a service-learning course at Wesleyan before, I wasn’t completely sure what the commitment would be outside of the classroom, but I knew that the course would allow me to engage in meaningful research in the Middletown community, which I was really excited about. I also knew that whatever project I was assigned to would fall right in line with my interests in the healthcare profession. 

How has the service-learning component enhanced your experience of the course and affected your understanding of the subject matter?
The service-learning component of the course allows the students to realize the importance of the topics and issues we discuss in class. Because Peggy conducts the class in a seminar fashion, the class revolves around students sharing their opinions and personal insights on the reading material. At the beginning of the semester, I was able to understand the topics we would discuss, but did not always have a realistic interpretation of their significance based on personal knowledge. However, by the end of the semester I felt like my particular research project at the CHC allowed me to really appreciate the importance of mental health, informed consent, and research protocols, for example, which were all things that we covered in our class discussions. I also have a whole new understanding of the barriers to access to healthcare for certain populations, and why this leads to health inequality along a social gradient. As someone who hopes to enter the medical profession, I feel like I am much more prepared to make a difference in this field after taking this course and beginning to work at the CHC.

What were the unexpected rewards and challenges of the course?
One challenge I faced was scheduling time to complete all the reading assignments that Peggy assigns. Because we discuss every article fairly in depth, you can’t get away with not doing all the reading. Student participation is a huge component of the course – it’s probably just as important as the writing assignments.

One thing that I am really happy about is that my research project carries over into the spring semester. At first, I remember feeling a little bit hesitant about committing myself to work at the CHC for a whole year, but you really can’t get a lot done on your project in just one semester. I’m really happy that we will be able to continue to make meaningful progress on our project.

I also feel really lucky to be able to work with Dr. Tim Kearney and Kim Citron at the CHC, who are experienced professionals in the field of psychology and show an incredible amount of passion for the work that they are doing.

Has this course influenced your career interests?
I think that I would like to get more experience learning about the field of public health, perhaps by working for an organization like the Community HealthCorps before I enter medical school. The course has showed me how important it is to combat health disparities by serving underprivileged populations, and this is something that I hope to achieve as a physician.

What other activities or groups are you involved with at Wesleyan?
I’m a mentor for Wesleyan’s NEAT Mentoring Program, a steering committee member for Wesleyan Women in Science, a sister of Rho Epsilon Pi, and the co-creator and editor of Wesleyan’s food blog, WesStuffed.