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Creating a healthier community for graduate-student families

What can MIT do more to improve the health and wellbeing of MIT graduate students and their families, particularly families who are new to this country? It’s a question Maryanne Kirkbride, MIT Medical’s clinical director for campus life, has spent several years pondering — and one she’s finally started to answer with help from the Division of Student Life (DSL) and the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions (MGH-IHP).

Kirkbride, a nurse, wondered if MIT might expand outreach to graduate-student families while helping local nursing students fulfill their practicum requirements. Kirkbride broached the idea to Margaret Mahoney, director of the community health nursing course at the MGH-IHP School of Nursing, who responded enthusiastically.

With the support of Naomi Carton, MIT’s associate dean for residential life and dining, Kirkbride and MGH-IHP Clinical Instructor Danielle Cochrane planned a pilot. And at the start of last spring semester, Cochrane and her graduate students began spending one day per week at the Westgate Apartments building, which houses more than 200 graduate-student families on the MIT campus.

The nursing students started with a needs assessment, interviewing a number of residents at Westgate and Eastgate, MIT’s other graduate-student apartment building, and reviewing survey data. “We began by trying to learn about the community,” Cochrane says. “Our first impression was that even though MIT had a lot of resources available, residents were unaware of them or didn’t know how to access them. Our interviews bore this out.”

The students found that families needed help learning to navigate the U.S. healthcare system. They also wanted parenting advice and information about health topics relevant to children. With a better understanding of the families’ needs, Cochrane’s students put on two end-of-semester health fairs at Westgate and Eastgate. At the fairs, nursing students provided general health information while MIT Medical clinicians delivered short presentations about such topics as stress management, women’s health, and pediatrics.

Taking advantage of the warmer weather, programming moved outside for the summer, to the Westgate playground, where students hosted weekly gatherings that covered such topics as navigating the U.S. healthcare system, summertime skin care, playground safety, and dental hygiene. Along with information for parents, each session included children’s activities and, often, a few freebies. For example, at the dental hygiene session, children practiced brushing on a teeth model, drew chalk pictures on the sidewalk, and went home with free toothbrushes and toothpaste.

“Our sessions have been well attended,” Cochrane says. “The MIT students and spouses interact and ask many questions. The families seemed to want the education and information we provided.”

Kirkbride concurs: “Participants tell us how much they appreciate the sessions. One spouse told me, ‘I never really understood how health care works in this country, but the nursing students showed me where to start.’”

Activities for the current school year began with a family health fair, on the evening of Oct. 22 at Westgate, which provided residents with blood pressure checks, information on health insurance and campus resources, and, for the children, a do-it-yourself granola-making station. A graduate student health fair was held on Oct. 29 at MIT’s Sidney-Pacific graduate residence. In the coming months, MGH-IHP students will hold follow-up sessions on topics of interest to residents.

Cochrane remains excited about the work she and her students are doing. “Not only do the residents seem to appreciate our efforts, it’s also helped my nursing students understand and appreciate the complexities of nursing at the community level,” she says. “It’s not just about helping an individual with high blood pressure. It’s about discovering all the environmental factors contributing to that high blood pressure and working to solve those problems.”

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