Experiential Learning

A Liberal Arts Education and the Rural Health Immersion Program

By Kathleen Lamanna

Experiential learning is a key factor in the liberal arts mission. While many students chose to do internships or study abroad, these are not the only ways to gain an experiential learning credit at a liberal arts institution. 

The Rural Health Immersion Program (RHIP) at Wells College in Aurora, New York,  is a community-based healthcare workforce endeavor. This program encompasses collaboration and partnership in order to give students first-hand experience in the rural healthcare field. 

The RHIP program at Wells College was inspired by an Interdisciplinary Rural Immersion Week at the University of Colorado Denver. The UC Denver program allowed for students that were interested in rural healthcare to spend a week learning and investigating all aspects of small town personal, professional and community life. The idea for this program was based around the fact that rural areas often have a shortage of medical professionals. By immersing students who are interested in the health care field into rural hospitals, there is a possibility that these students may, at some point, return to these rural communities. 

The program at Wells College was based loosely around the principals of the program in Denver. The Wells RHIP program, in conjunction with the Area Health Education Center, works to take six students to a rural community hospital. The program, which lasts a week, consists of multiple interviews, health-care shadowing, and a final presentation in front of hospital and state officials as well as community members.  When talking to Kristina Blake, an assistant professor of biology at Wells College and RHIP sponsor, she described the program as having three main goals: to “get students to understand the rural healthcare setting,” to encourage the students to “become interested in a career in rural medicine,” and to “expose students to a variety of different health care professions.”  

Blake stated that “more importantly than the experiential learning is that the students will be getting professional experience.” Blake went on to describe the confidence that the students developed during their interviews with locals: “these are life skills that they will need to succeed in any job.” 

Many of the students who attended the program expressed their gratitude for the experience. “I found out about the program two years ago,” said Kyle Admire, a Wells College biochemistry and molecular biology major. “When I found out it would be offered this year, I signed up.”

During the week of the program, the students had a full schedule of immersion into the rural community. “The first two days were all presentations and getting ready for the shadowing part,” said Maia Baskerville, a Wells College biology major.  “We did a lot of surveys to community people.” 

After the first two days of presentations, the students shadowed different health care professionals and continued interviewing community members, searching for comments on the health care in their rural area. 

On the last day, the students gave a presentation to hospital representatives, community leaders, community partners, Wells College representatives, AHEC representatives, newspapers and other media, and the community at large based on the community interviews and health care experience they had during the week. 

The Rural Health Immersion Program thoroughly exhibits the mission of a liberal arts education; it encouraged participants to think critically, reason wisely, and act humanely. Through this experiential learning involvement, the students who participated were able to gain hands on experience that will better their chances at employment in the medical or other professional field;  “It helped solidify that I want to work in a rural environment when I’m older and be in a community type setting,” Julie Cavanaugh, Wells College biochemistry and molecular biology major. 

Kathleen Lamanna is a senior at Wells College majoring in English with a focus in creative writing and a minor in history. Wells College is home to the Xi of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.