Expanding the Boundaries of Higher Education and Professional Practice

With the advent of the first pediatric nurse practitioner program in the late 1960s, the nursing profession began to examine its scope of practice. Schools of nursing initiated curriculum changes and innovative programs that would support an expanded nursing role for nurse practitioners in community and ambulatory settings and clinical nurse specialists in acute care settings. Nursing students sought out experiences that would position them to move into these expanded roles. Nursing students in the Student Health Coalition learned physical assessment skills—listening to heart and breath sounds, examining ears with otoscopes—as well as other non-traditional nursing tasks such as running EKGs, interpreting lab test results, and screening for glaucoma. Attending physicians taught these skills in the early years to nursing students and beginning medical students who had not learned them yet in classes. In later years, nursing faculty with these skills joined the Coalition staff.  Schools of nursing, including Vanderbilt, began teaching these skills first to graduate students and nurses in specialty post-graduate programs. Ultimately, the physical assessment skills became an accepted and expected part of the nursing role, as essential a part of nursing assessment as vital signs. Many of the nursing students in SHC went on to post-graduate and masters degree programs to become nurse practitioners.

The concept of community health became much more concrete for the nursing and medical students working in the small towns and hollows of rural Appalachia. They learned first-hand about the impact of a community’s health on the individual health of its residents. They quickly understood how poor air quality, unsafe water, inaccessible and unaffordable healthcare, and limited access to nutritious food could interact with individual health risks to increase the threat of illness. Working in the Student Health Coalition provided real life opportunities to work with communities as well as individuals to improve health outcomes.

Medical education was also changing. Medical education had long been based in medical centers affiliated with academic institutions. Medical faculty concentrated on their own research, alongside their responsibilities for patient care. Their interaction with students was often limited. But the face of medicine was changing. Beginning in the mid-1960’s the percentage of women in medical school rapidly increased, growing from 7% to 37% by 1980. Medical students began demanding opportunities to interact with patients in their own environments outside academic settings. Negotiations about the roles and responsibilities of medical students in community settings was ongoing, with student activists often encountering opposition from faculty and medical school administrators.

The nursing profession had a long history of providing nursing care in community settings–from Florence Nightingale’s trained nurses on the battlefields of Crimea to nurses based in settlement houses offering health and hygiene interventions along with care of the sick to disadvantaged, urban populations in the late 19th  and early 20th century. Over time, these services became more institutionally based in public health departments and visiting nurse services. In the SHC however, nursing students worked directly with underserved, disenfranchised communities through health fairs, home visits, and community organizing. They returned to school seeking approaches that would address underlying issues that impacted the health of communities as well as individuals.

The Student Health Coalition was right in the middle of these changes and negotiations in medical and nursing education. Students and faculty who worked for the SHC were sometimes the initiators and sometimes the beneficiaries of the seismic shift in nursing and medical education that was underway. The SHC’s health fairs provided students and their professors new opportunities to see people in the context of their own families and communities, not simply as patients presenting illnesses. Medical and nursing schools with SHC participants began to look for more and more community-based learning experiences for their students.

During the 1970s the culture at law schools and undergraduate programs underwent similar changes. As Coalition students returned from their summer of service, they began demanding more opportunities for community-based learning. Their SHC experience also put law students and undergraduates on new career paths. They were drawn to organizations and causes dedicated to addressing the same problems of poverty, exploitation, and injustice they had encountered working for the SHC. For them too, the boundaries of their education and professional practice were expanded.


Related Stories:

A sampling of vignettes that illustrate various ways in which the boundaries of higher education and professional practice were deepened or broadened. For all oral and written narratives related to this theme, click here. For a complete catalogue of clips across all three themes, visit “Stories”.

Competing visions and growing pains: on the Center’s origins

Irwin Venick expands on the competing visions between the SHC and the Center for Health Services (CHS), explaining that once the Center was established, Coalitioners faced the challenge of adjusting to a structure they hadn’t had to in previous installments… Continued

On Art Van Zee’s decision to stay in St. Charles

Art Van Zee shares the motivation behind his decision to stay at the clinic in St. Charles, Va., long after the Student Health Coalition’s activity there. His story is but one example of the long-term impact the SHC had on… Continued

“What it took” – Nine nurses reconvene fifty years later and discover the power of common denominators

Nine nurses gathered in Nashville in May 2019 to reminisce about their beginnings as nurses. Nursing practice underwent radical changes in those days. These nine nurses stood apart from their peers and in conflict with convention. Here, they discuss what… Continued

Joe Little on the early days of the Center for Health Services

Joe Little shares his perspective on the impetus behind the establishment of the Center for Health Services, based on his own recollection and from his deep dive into the archives. Toward the end of this clip, he also briefly touches… Continued

Outside convention and against the grain: what set the Coalition apart

Bob Hartmann frames the Coalition work as having absolutely been outside convention and against the grain, in large part due to Bill Dow’s talent at generating and following through with big, extraordinary ideas. He then elucidates one of his favorite… Continued

Art Van Zee’s message to students today

Art Van Zee discusses how the legacy of St. Charles Clinic may serve as inspiration to students today, and encourages them to harness a belief that they, too, should feel empowered to get involved in social movements. Recorded March 17th,… Continued

Connecting the dots: from SHC to ACA

In 2013, just as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was about to get rolled out, Bill Corr took time out of his busy schedule as Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services to reflect on the resonance between the Coalition… Continued

Behind the scenes at Douglas Community Health Center

Jean Carney reminisces the early days of Douglas Community Health Center in Stanton, Tenn. Following a brief overview of the clinic’s architectural layout and functional operations, she delves into the impact of race relations on healthcare at the time.  … Continued

Related People:

Profiles of several individuals, among many, whose work with the Student Health Coalition exemplifies the SHC’s impact on expanding the boundaries of higher education and professional practice. A listing of all SHC profiles can be found under “People”.

Amos Christie

Amos Christie received his M.D. from the University of California. In 1943, he arrived at Vanderbilt University as Chair of the Department of Pediatrics. During his time at Vanderbilt, he studied histoplasmosis, a fungal disease simulating tuberculosis, and received a… Continued

Betty Anderson

Betty Anderson was born in Scott County, Tenn. on March 26, 1936. In the 1970s, she became involved with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), a social justice organization that addressed strip-mining and other community issues in Tennessee and Kentucky. She… Continued
Bill Dow in Smithville ,Tenn., 1970

Bill Dow

Bill Dow co-founded the Student Health Coalition while in medical school at Vanderbilt University, in 1969. His larger-than-life role in the SHC origin story and beyond warrants special telling, which we attempt in the essay that follows. Contributed by Margaret… Continued

Diane Lauver

Contributed by Diane Lauver, February 2018 Growing up, I was close to my paternal grandparents; they lived in a pastoral valley looking at Appalachian hills in a northern state. With their 8th grade educations and practical wisdom, they taught me… Continued

Leslie Falk

Leslie Falk was born April 19, 1915, and grew up in St. Louis, Mo. After attending University of Illinois and Washington University (St. Louis), Falk received a Rhodes Scholarship, which allowed him to attend Oxford University, 1937-1940, where he helped… Continued

Pete Moss

Contributed by Pete Moss and Jennifer Crane, March 2016. Dr. Pete Moss was raised on his maternal grandparents’ farm in Marshall County, Tenn., while his father fought in World War II. As the eldest of his siblings, he learned responsibility,… Continued

Welmoet Spreij

Contributed by Welmoet Spreij, Amsterdam, 2017. I came to Nashville as a Dutch exchange-student in the fall of 1969 and took some classes at Vanderbilt University. While attending a course in philosophy, I came to know John Davis, Dick Burr,… Continued

Related Outcomes:

A selection of initiatives, organizations, and developments that grew from seeds planted or causes championed by the SHC. A complete catalogue of materials related to various outcomes of the SHC experience can be found under “Legacy”.