Through the Tisch College and Tufts University School of Medicine Community Service Learning Program, every Tufts medical student completes at least 50 hours of community service as part of his or her education. Students serve in a variety of roles and settings, improving not just patient care but education and public health in local communities.
One of the School of Medicine’s most successful service learning projects is IDEAS in Medicine, which sends medical students to local schools in underserved communities. The Tufts students tutor kids in math and science, coordinate learning activities, and serve as valuable mentors just as their young charges begin to formulate goals for the future. They also lead a a day-long field trip at the Tufts School of Medicine—this year on March 11—which includes a tour of the anatomy lab, learning clinical skills such as reflex testing and suturing, making teeth impressions with dental students, and learning about careers in the health sciences.
John Armstrong, M18, had recently moved to Chelsea, Massachusetts, when he joined IDEAS in Medicine at Eugene Wright Science and Technology Academy (WSTA), a middle school just blocks from his new home. Once the poorest town in Massachusetts, Chelsea has turned a corner in recent years, a transformation Armstrong has witnessed and furthered as an IDEAS volunteer.
Armstrong is now the Public Health Director for IDEAS in Medicine. We talked with him about his experience volunteering with IDEAS, what compelled him to participate in the program, and how he feels this approach to civic engagement helps strengthen communities.
John Armstrong: As an organization, our goals are to inspire and foster an enthusiasm for science and to promote the use of science as a thought process. As an individual, I came to the program with an additional set of goals: meeting members of, and giving back to, my new community. It was this second set of goals that shaped the experience into something meaningful.
TC: What are some of the defining characteristics of Chelsea, and what challenges does the city face?
Armstrong: Chelsea is a dynamic city. Currently, alongside Lynn and East Boston, it is one of three municipalities in the state with a Latino majority. For decades, a succession of immigrants have called it home, working in the food factories and New England Produce Distribution Center. It is one of the last locations within a few miles of downtown Boston where the rent can be paid by working people. But as went Somerville, Jamaica Plain, and now East Boston, soon Chelsea too will fall prey to the rising specter of gentrification. I live in a new building; in fact the whole block is new. In the year and a half I’ve lived here, six luxury apartment complexes have sprouted up. It makes me acutely uncomfortable to think that I am an agent of the forces that will, in the years to come, drive many of my neighbors from their homes.
TC: As a recent arrival to the city, how did IDEAS help your own integration into the community?
Armstrong: In my time with IDEAS I have met many of my neighbors I otherwise would not have, and through my experiences there gained a greater respect for the city. Most importantly, my participation helped me establish a sense of being a contributing member of my community.
Hardly a week goes by where I don’t see at least one IDEAS student at the grocery store, in the street, waiting for the bus. Several live on my block. The first chance meeting stood out; I was walking home from the fruit stand one cloudy November afternoon, and I passed a group of boys with a basketball heading downtown. “What are YOU doing here!?!” Jorge* asked me. In the classroom and on the street, he seemed only able to speak at full volume. When I replied that I lived around the corner, he staggered. I took this as a natural reaction for Jorge, a product of his spastic personality. But the next week a similar incident occurred with Manny. Then Gabby, Charlotte, Isabelle. The IDEAS volunteers are viewed by the WSTA students as visitors, and not a part of their community; it doesn’t seem conceivable at first that any of us could possibly be their neighbor.
Armstrong: I enjoyed my first year with IDEAS. But the dry PowerPoint presentations bored even the volunteers. Often the students were presented with a barrage of facts, well above or well below their current level of understanding. This, along with a continued desire to give back to my neighbors, prompted me to take a leadership position in my second year. I took over the Public Health section of the program because I wanted to change the focus to issues specific to Chelsea. The city faces widespread poverty, obesity, violence, and substance abuse. While these problems are certainly not unique to Chelsea, they manifest in ways that surprised me. For example, there is no trick-or-treating on Halloween, for fear of gang influence on kids out in the dark.
TC: How have you worked to make the program more effective for the students?
Armstrong: The new program we are designing will bring the students out into their own community, identifying public health issues that they notice in their own neighborhood, and come up with a campaign to be presented in a public space in Chelsea. This is a big change from the lectures and book research of previous years. My personal knowledge of city resources has allowed us to connect with organizations (such as Chelsea public TV and the Chelsea Theatre Company) that other volunteers would be unaware of. In addition, I am proud to have played a role in weaving the after school science program into the students’ own community, hopefully making it more a more resonant and lasting experience in so doing.
Tisch: How has your experience with IDEAS in Medicine shaped your view of civic engagement?
Armstrong: Prior to IDEAS I had only limited experience with community service. Now, it is hard to envision a life where I am uninvolved. Community engagement for me has built relationships with people and, through them, with a place. I cultivated skills that will help in my future practice of medicine, but more valuable to me are the skills I developed that will allow me to be an active, involved member of my community.
*All names have been changed. Originally published February 2016.