An excellent move

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Abby Smith

When gerontology graduate student Abby Smith receives her master’s degree in May, she’ll already have several years of experience working with older persons and developing ways to enhance their care.

Smith began her first part-time job at a nursing home in her hometown of Sumner, Iowa, at age 16. “Where I grew up you had a choice of working at the nursing home or the grocery store,” she said. She aided senior residents through high school and summers home from undergraduate studies at Clark College in Dubuque, Iowa. When it came time to select a graduate school, she explored the relatively few gerontology programs in the Midwest and settled on St. Cloud State University.

“I fell in love with the place, and coming to St. Cloud State has been an excellent move,” she said. Smith has benefited from invaluable leadership opportunities while working on her master’s degree, serving as a graduate assistant for the gerontology department, working part-time as a certified nursing assistant at a local nursing home and participating with faculty members in national professional meetings. She’s also been president of the Honor Society in Gerontology at SCSU.

Even more doors will open for Smith after serving a coveted four-month internship at the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, the educational arm of the Gerontological Society of America, this spring. She’s the only graduate student in the United States to be chosen for the honor. She’ll be attending public policy meetings in the nation’s capitol, assisting with staff projects and helping put together the conferences at which she presented as a student – a rare opportunity for those who are still preparing to take their place in the profession. “It offers me opportunities to network that I just couldn’t pass up,” Smith said.

In November Smith gave a poster presentation at the Gerontological Society of America’s 59th Annual Scientific Meeting in Dallas and impressed faculty members from around the country with her anecdotes and depth of experience. Her talk on “Developing a Dementia Training Manual: Outcomes of Intergenerational Service-Learning Project,” focused on a project she and four other gerontology graduate students in Community Studies Professor Rona Karasik’s “Aging and Community” class completed last year.

The project evolved after Good Shepherd Community in Sauk Rapids came to Karasik to request assistance with formal training for the staff of the senior facility’s newly opened Memory Cottages. The class toured the facility, then researched and created a dementia training manual that began with an overview of the complex condition and ways to deal with the day-to-day care-giving challenges it brings. The manual also includes a pre-test and post-test for staff to assess their own learning and dementia-appropriate activity ideas for staff and visitors tailored to the needs of current residents.

“The students learned a great deal from this project,” said Karasik, who regularly develops activities for her students to provide needed services to the community while enhancing their academic education with hands-on experience.

The Good Shepherd staff developed team spirit from the training, which included three two-hour sessions for discussing issues, asking questions and role playing. “They got a lot out of the program,” said Smith, who also interned at Good Shepherd and worked as a life enrichment coordinator there. “We’ve done so many things as a campus with that community. It’s been good for them and opened so many doors for me.”

Smith credits her graduate program and faculty members with providing students with exceptional educational experiences. “They really work with you on a personal basis, honing your skills,” she said. “They also do a good job of helping us make connections in the community.”

Smith intends to put her experience to good use as she continues her formal education. She wants to earn a doctorate in neuropsychology and teach in the field of gerontology.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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