Pathways Academy Students Spend Week as VA Hospital Volunteers

By Chris Carmody

Pathways Academy is an educational and community engagement program in the UAMS Division for Academic Pathways and Workforce Partnerships. The program prepares K-12 students for careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health sciences (STEM-H) disciplines.

Seventeen high school students from central Arkansas took part in the volunteer effort, with each of them logging nearly 40 hours of service. Katina White, education and curriculum coordinator for Pathways Academy, noted that the 2023 Arkansas LEARNS Act requires high school students to perform 75 hours of community service before they receive their diplomas.

“This project fulfills about half of their graduation requirement and gives them a new perspective of what it means to work inside a hospital,” she said.

Each student was assigned to a hospital department for a week of job shadowing and volunteer work, providing exposure to health disciplines such as audiology, dialysis, nursing, pathology, pharmacy, and surgery and anesthesia.

Bailey Kittrell, a rising senior at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School in Little Rock, spent a week with the hospital’s audiologists. The health professionals taught her about tinnitus and other hearing conditions that disproportionately affect veterans, whose work often involves repeated exposure to loud noises.

“I was able to learn from the audiologists and watch them work, which gave me a lot of insight into this career field,” she said.

Jordan Bowden, a rising junior at North Little Rock High School, volunteered in the hospital’s pharmacy, where she learned about a variety of inpatient and outpatient services that ensure veterans receive their medications as quickly as possible.

“This was a good learning experience for me,” she said.

Although the students were limited in the hands-on activities they could perform, they were able to socialize with patients and help them feel more comfortable in a medical setting. These interactions gave the teens a better understanding of how war has changed the lives of those who served.

During a group activity in the hospital’s Office of Innovation, the students also learned about how new technologies are being used to help veterans with mental health conditions. Students donned virtual reality headsets to view scenes of swimming dolphins and woodland landscapes, which are intended to have a calming or meditative effect for patients.

Michael Dobbs, chief of civic engagement for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, said he was pleased to welcome the Pathways Academy students, noting that the hospital has only recently reestablished some of its volunteer programs after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a yearslong pause.

“I think all of the students were very professional,” he said. “Our hope is that they one day return as volunteers — or as health care providers.”

Aaron Ritter, DPM, chief of surgery for the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital, said volunteer programs can have a lasting impact on their participants. He cited his own experience as an undergraduate volunteer at a veterans’ hospital in Tampa, Florida, which led him to a career at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I’m interested in inspiring these students to be the next generation of surgeons, doctors and nurses,” he said. “It’s about getting them here and showing them why we love our jobs and why we do what we do.”

For the Pathways Academy, the volunteer project was one component in a two-week summer intensive camp intended to foster the teens’ interest in STEM-H careers, with a curriculum that covered topics such as culinary medicine, spaceflight and jet propulsion. Students also sewed NASA-themed quilts that they plan to donate to the VA hospital.