Left to right: Seniors Adreyauna Lewers, Liza Robinson, and Simey Hernandez are the student leaders of an effort that takes students from the classroom into local communities to provide education about living with diabetes.

Sugar, Sugar

A student-led effort to address diabetes in local communities leads to a new academic course and a flourishing outreach program.

It’s taken a while for Sewanee’s diabetes education program to get where it is now, but the evolution went something like this: Students saw a need in the community, developed a program, worked with faculty and staff members to develop procedures, changed course when necessary, and have reached a point where students will be integrally involved in programs that have a positive impact on the health of hundreds of local patients. And now, for the first time, students are being trained as diabetes educators in a two-credit academic course that will allow them to continue the good work. 

“It’s been such a great collaborative effort,” says Assistant Director of Community Engagement Robin Hille Michaels. “It took years of being out in the community and doing this kind of work before all of the pieces started to fall together, but the program is developing in such a natural way.”

It all started several years ago with students working as volunteers in medical clinics in Winchester and Beersheba Springs. “The students kept seeing specific things—hypertension, bad cholesterol, and diabetes,” Michaels says. “They thought it would be great if they could offer diabetes education at the clinics.”

Diabetes is a major public-health threat in the United States right now, with Type II diabetes occurring more and more frequently in younger individuals and becoming more prevalent among adults. The students who volunteered in the health clinics knew there was a need for education, but were initially unsure how to share the information.

That’s when Gaby Spangenberg, C’14, had an idea: Start a diabetes-education program for patients in the clinics. “She was the first student who identified the need within the community, and that’s when we started brainstorming about how we could implement and create this program,” Michaels says.

“It started as this need in a clinical setting, but reaching those patients was difficult,” says Associate Professor of Biology Alyssa Summers. “We had all of these trained diabetes educators, and we wanted to use that student energy within the community. That’s why we wanted to formalize the class and allow these diabetes educators to share and disseminate the information.”

When Spangenberg graduated, Liza Robinson, C’16; Simey Hernandez, C’16; and Adreyauna Lewers, C’16, became the driving force behind the growth of the program. Working with Summers, they started organizing the curriculum and arranging for guest speakers to teach a course—not for patients, but for the students who would be working with them—at the University. 

The student leaders also enlisted the help of Richard O’Connor, an anthropology professor with an interest in health, and Biology Professor Deborah McGrath, who teaches a course on Human Health and the Environment. The student leaders wanted their student educators to understand the cultural, biological, social, and physical aspects of diabetes.

“We spent a semester putting together a curriculum, contacting potential speakers, and gauging student interest,” Summers says. Today, Robinson, Lewers, and Hernandez continue to work with Summers to plan classes, select presentation topics, and develop the course’s syllabus. A typical Wednesday night class begins with the three students presenting new information and introducing guest speakers. Each week, their topic focuses on some aspect of diet and lifestyle while teaching about changes that can help people live a healthier life. “The class is multidisciplinary, so what each class looks like will depend on the speaker,” Hernandez says. “Our class may feature experts in diabetes reversal who train students on biological mechanisms that affect diabetes, to personal trainers showing students the most effective exercises for at-risk populations. Sometimes, we even have psychologists discuss how to construct meaningful, enriching conversations with strangers.”

While students were able to take the course last year, it was approved this semester as an academic course offering two hours of course credit. “The idea is that students can take this University course and then use their knowledge in other programs in the community,” Michaels says. 

The student leaders have been excited to see it become a full academic class. “Throughout the years, we’ve tweaked the curriculum and logistics,” Lewers says. “Now that it’s a course for academic credit, students are motivated to take the class seriously. In the long run, when students become educators, they’re able to give the best service to the community.”

After completing the Diabetes Educator course, students can work in two programs in the community. “Because of the work that we do, we’ve made strong connections in the community,” Michaels says. One of those connections is with the leaders of a Reversing Diabetes seminar held in Grundy County. Karen and Stephen Wickham, the couple behind the workshop, hold a seven-week-long course to help people reverse diabetes through diet and lifestyle. Student diabetes educators are now able to work with the Wickhams to strengthen and grow their program. Similarly, student educators can work with Tonya Garner, who serves as the public health educator for Grundy County and Franklin County. Garner recently received a grant to start a diabetes-prevention program, which Sewanee diabetes educators will help to develop.

Robinson, Lewers, and Hernandez are also involved in the community-outreach portion of the project with the Wickhams. “As a volunteer with the Wickhams, I take blood pressure, sign clients in, and make sure they have the right materials. Clients are supposed to share their met and unmet goals for the previous week, set new goals, and discuss strategies that help stop bad habits regarding their diet and lifestyle,” Lewers says.

Robinson, Lewers, and Hernandez have been instrumental to the program’s growth and evolution. “There’s so much collaboration happening right now, and the students have been tremendous influencers,” Michaels says. “In the future, we hope to have more students working with Tonya and the Wickhams, and we’ll also be able to develop and implement the Sewanee diabetes education course even more. Then, the students who get that two-hour credit can go to work with these programs,” Michaels says.

The student leaders also see a bright future for the program. “I hope that the course keeps expanding as we learn more and more about how diabetes works as a metabolic disorder. With expanding research in the field, we hope that the diabetes education will spread in our local communities,” Hernandez says.

Robinson has a similar outlook. “My hope for the course is to have continued interest and growth for both the education course and community-outreach component. With 17 students in the course currently, it’s an excellent start,” Robinson says.

With continued support from faculty, staff, and community members, the program is likely to continue to grow. “I hope we can continue to teach a comprehensive approach to the disease so that students not only understand what it is and how it affects lives, but also understand the indirect factors that contribute to its development, persistence, and reversal,” Robinson says. “It has certainly sparked my passion for improving public health. For that, I will be forever grateful.”