Two Niagara University students from very different backgrounds were caught by surprise recently when they volunteered at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center to fulfill a class requirement.
Russell Stewart and Hope Wiles, both social work majors at the Lewiston school, said they realized they held some misconceptions about mental health that their work experience at the outpatient behavioral health unit soon shattered.
"This changed my perception of a mental-health clinic," said Stewart, a 44-year-old junior from Niagara Falls. "When you do intake and talk to everyone, you realize everyone is susceptible to mental-health issues."
Wiles, a 20-year-old sophomore from Baltimore, said that, although both her parents work at a hospital, her time at Memorial revealed she knew less about patients in that department than she thought.
Stewart and Wiles were part of a group of 24 Niagara University students who worked at least three hours a week at the hospital for eight weeks during the fall under a new partnership, called University Volunteers.
The hospital is now one of at least 80 nonprofit partners with Niagara University's Learn and Serve program, which matches students who need 15 to 25 service hours per semester with groups that need a free hand.
"This is where book learning comes face to face with the real world," said Fran Boltz, coordinator of the Niagara University Community Action Program.
Boltz and Melissa Morinello, Memorial's director of volunteer services, met during the summer. The two said they immediately decided Learn and Serve would be a perfect fit for the hospital's need for more help and the university's desire to offer new volunteer options.
Morinello, who matched job placements with students' interests, said she has seen them learn time management and how to behave and dress professionally.
Wiles said her experience filing papers in the behavioral health unit may not have been glamorous, but it exposed her to patients she had never worked with before.
"It allowed you to see it's not necessarily how they were raised, sometimes it just happens," she said of her own misconceptions about mental health. "You learn about it in psychology class, but I had never had an upfront experience, and it was overwhelming."
Wiles said she likely won't choose the mental-health field but said she definitely wants to work in the fast-paced atmosphere of a large hospital like Memorial.
"I talk to my friends from other schools, and they're surprised that we start [work experience], because they don't start until they're upper classmen," Wiles said. "They start here when we're freshmen."
Morinello and Boltz hope the partnership will change more than just the students' perception about the hospital and its operations. They want to encourage more graduates to consider taking a local job, maybe even at one of the places where they have volunteered.
Stewart, who is preparing for a second career after construction work resulted in three back surgeries, said working in the behavioral health unit impacted his view of social work so much he may choose to work in that area.
He said he values the local professional contacts he has made at Memorial because he has lived in Niagara County his entire life and plans to stay.