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Healthy habits: Nursing students working in schools to improve young people’s lives

Health Habits illustration with students walking into a school shaped like an apple

Persuading 30 kindergartners to walk in a single-file line around a dimly lit school gymnasium looked about as easy as corralling a dozen cats into a phone booth. Illinois State nursing student Kenia Najera pulled off the trick with the help of staff at Fairview Elementary in Normal.

Najera was trying to get the students to participate in a lunchtime walking program last fall. She handed one child a pedometer and explained to the others how it would count their steps. As the students ambled their way around the basketball court, an overeager few sprinted out ahead of the pack. “Can we all walk tighter?” Najera asked. The students yelled back, “Yeah!”

After a few weeks, Najera planned to set a goal for the students—like seeing if they could accumulate enough steps to cover the equivalent distance between their school and Disney World. The goal was an attempt to motivate the students to get some exercise, which was the whole point of this anti-obesity measure.

“It’s been really fun,” Najera said. “The kids enjoy being with us. It brings the kid in us outside.”
The walking activity is just one of the many projects Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN) students have initiated across Central Illinois in order to boost students’ health, confidence, and mental well-being. The latest initiatives involve nursing students using mindfulness exercises to encourage elementary children to be kinder to each other and assisting a rural high school with its suicide prevention efforts.

MCN assigns nursing undergraduate students and faculty mentors to schools across Central Illinois for the college’s award-winning pediatric and public health clinical experience, America’s Promise Schools Project. The community health initiative combines civic engagement and real-world training: Schools receive help teaching students about healthy lifestyles, and the nursing students gain experience working with children in a public health setting.

“There seems to be a lot of anxiety. There is an underlying feeling of people not being kind to each other.”—Carla Pohl

The clinicals are critical for the nursing students, said Assistant Professor Carla Pohl, director of America’s Promise: “Not only are they getting the experience in the school, but they are seeing what community nursing looks like.” Students also learn how difficult it is for parents and their children to deal with chronic illnesses or for parents to discover their child has an acute disease. “The project helps the students learn what the reality is,” Pohl said. “It helps them learn what the community resources are.”

MCN started America’s Promise in local schools in 2011. State Farm Companies Foundation and the college fund the project, which was an outgrowth of America’s Promise Alliance. Retired U.S. Gen. Colin Powell founded this national initiative to improve young people’s health and well-being.

Last year, MCN’s America’s Promise received the Innovations in Professional Nursing Education Award from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). The honor recognized the outstanding work of AACN schools to re-envision traditional models for nursing education and lead programmatic change.

MCN Dean Judy Neubrander said the award was a testament to the college finding a creative solution to a problem it was facing. “The original impetus for this project was we didn’t have enough clinical experiences for the (pediatrics and public health) classes,” Pohl said. The shortage was due to a long-term decline in the number of children’s units at hospitals, she said.

America’s Promise now provides clinical experiences for about 90 nursing seniors each fall semester. Seven to eight students are stationed at each of the 23 sites, located in six school districts across three counties. The students focus on three health problems identified in local community needs assessments and by national health organizations: oral health, obesity, and mental health.

Illinois State nursing students like Miranda Rangel, B.S.N. ‘17, have been helping to improve the health of area students as part of America’s Promise.

Illinois State nursing students like Miranda Rangel, B.S.N. ‘17, have been helping to improve the health of area students as part of America’s Promise.

Improving children’s emotional and mental well-being is the newest challenge tackled by the nursing students. Children, even in the lower elementary grades, are dealing with a lot of stress, Pohl said. “There seems to be a lot of anxiety. There is an underlying feeling of people not being kind to each other.”

MCN has begun deploying a curriculum called Project Happiness in some Bloomington-Normal public schools. The research-based program features mindfulness and breathing exercises. “It teaches the kids to deal with their emotions and be more positive,” Pohl said.

In 2016 MCN began assisting the rural El Paso-Gridley School District with its suicide prevention efforts. The district had instituted the program in its high school three years earlier in response to a new state law mandating suicide and depression awareness and prevention in the schools, and increasing mental health needs.

High school students are feeling a lot of pressure, especially with the increased stress brought by social media, school psychologist Jil Stauter said.

“Identifying mental health needs and how to find help has become increasingly important in all high schools,” said Christy Quam, El-Paso-Gridley school social worker.

Quam and Stauter assess students using a standard questionnaire to identify those who are most at-risk of suicide and depression. The school then offers help to those who need it and educates all students on skills and resources they can use if one of their friends might be contemplating suicide.
MCN students created a pamphlet for the program and also held “lunch and learns” in the cafeteria where they provided information about suicide prevention and depression.

“The program is preventive rather than reactive to the concerns of students,” Stauter said.

MCN students are also developing projects within the schools and learning how to practice nursing in a less regimented environment than a hospital, said MCN Instructional Assistant Professor Mary Cranston, who has been an America’s Promise site supervisor since the project’s inception.

For example, nursing students at El Paso-Gridley knew a lack of sleep could be a problem for high schoolers. Instead of just telling them to sleep more, MCN students found a sleep cycle app that students could download to their phones. The app monitors their sleep habits and helps them develop a schedule to sleep better, nursing senior Bridget Giuffre said.

The MCN students follow a process when developing projects. They study community health assessments and work closely with school nurses to identify problems and formulate creative solutions. The nursing students learn to work as a team where patients live and determine what challenges they face, Cranston said.

“You have to learn how to listen to the community because that is what civic engagement is,” Pohl said. “You have to learn how to assess the community and work with the community to solve any issues the community is interested in, not what you are interested in.”

Private support

Private support is paramount to Illinois State University’s ability to produce positive change. State Farm’s commitment to America’s Promise is just one example of how gifts to Illinois State lead to improvements in our community. Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State provides alumni and friends like you with an opportunity to support your passion through Illinois State. To learn more about how you can rise to the challenge, visit

For more information about the Mennonite College of Nursing, visit

Kevin Bersett can be reached at

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