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Francis Cunningham—A Glimpse inside the life of an Augustinian Volunteer


The Augustinian Volunteers is a nationwide program that takes recent college graduates from around the country and places them in different cities, both domestic and abroad, in which the volunteers spend a year of their lives devoted to service. Upon graduation, Francis Cunningham ’15 BSN committed to a year of service as an Augustinian Volunteer in San Diego, California serving as a registered nurse in a family health clinic at a homeless shelter. Recently Francis was interviewed about his new role, in a new town, with new friends, and new responsibilities. Francis generously shared with us his thoughts about his Villanova education several months after graduating and entering practice in an unconventional setting.

When asked about his role as a nurse in San Diego, Francis responded, “At the health clinic I split my time between working in the triage department, performing wound care, leading health education forums, assisting with medical procedures, and attending multi-disciplinary case management and clinic coordinator meetings. As a health clinic in a homeless shelter, our services are federally funded to serve specifically people experiencing homelessness—which is to say, people currently living outside, or living in a homeless assistance program (such as a transitional housing facility or an emergency shelter). Our clinic is equipped to meet the medical, psychiatric, and addiction needs of our patients. We also provide medical case management services and have insurance specialists to assist patients with applying for medical insurance.”

Francis also reflected on the role his nursing education played in preparing him for this volunteer role as a novice nurse. “One of the best things about a nursing education is that you can bet that the content you learn about in school will be things that you will one day draw upon later on in your career. Villanova’s College of Nursing education gave me not only a vast array of clinical skills that I use on a daily basis at the clinic, but also a confidence in myself as a nursing leader to be proactive about taking initiative for myself and for my patients in the clinic. (And this holds especially true for this patient population that faces such a disproportionate degree of marginalization and stigmatization in not only healthcare, but all aspects of a dignified lifestyle). One of the things I appreciate most about this opportunity I have to serve as a nurse in this health clinic is the exposure and awareness I am gaining about homelessness and the individuals who live through it. Because the truth is that no matter what field of nursing you choose to go into, it is very likely that you will, at some point, have a patient who is homeless. And part of what this year is instilling in me is how to holistically address the needs of a patient who is experiencing homelessness—a set of needs that breaches the scope of their immediate medical concerns. And I believe that this attention to holistic care as it relates to their specialized needs is so crucial to being a nurse-healer and a nurse-leader.”

Francis explained that his preparation as a Villanova nurse further prepared him for this opportunity. “Villanova, in many aspects, promotes the ideals of community and service, both within our campus community and in the world that surrounds it. The Augustinian Volunteer program operates very much within the context of these ideals as well. I think that my decision to join the Augustinian Volunteers was a decision-in-the-making, long before I was even aware of who the Augustinian Volunteers were. From the international nursing break trips to the intra-Driscoll lectures about underserved populations in our own backyard, both my education and my experiences were focused on how to use my time and my skills to improve the lives and the health of others. The Augustinian Volunteer program seemed like the best fusion of clinical nursing practice and intentionality of vocation.”

Augustinian volunteers live with other volunteers in their community. Francis lives in community with four other volunteers in San Diego; all of whom have also just recently graduated from college and decided to pursue a year of service following that post-collegiate transition. Francis has discovered that living in community means being present and open and supporting and loving to the people you live with, while also being mindful of the importance of simple living. “This year, this city, and these jobs are all new for all of us, and you want people by your side who can not only relate to your experiences, but who can help you process them. I am so lucky to be living with a group of people that have made this transition into San Diego and into community life feel so organic”.

In closing the interview with Francis, he shared one final story about a patient who touched him deeply and pulled on his Villanova education.

“When I was still a student at Villanova, I had the privilege of being a part of an international nursing clinical experience in the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic, we visited various Haitian communities and did things ranging from physical assessments to health education. One of the most jarring parts (and, consequently, one of the most influential parts) of our experiences in the Dominican Republic was the constant exposure and awareness of the overwhelming economic and health disparities that infiltrated the livelihoods of the people we were seeing. And in many ways, working here in a health clinic that serves the homeless population very much mirrors many of the realizations I first had when I went to the Dominican Republic. And each day I am struck by how meaningful even the simplest of gestures and actions can affect someone’s day.

There was one patient that came into the clinic one night about a month ago. He had just come from Tijuana, Mexico and had lost everything—his home, his belongings, his medications. All he had were the clothes on his back and a pair of makeshift crutches saddled under his arms. Crossing the border had taken the whole day and he hadn’t eaten anything since the day before. There was also a large wound on the sole of one of his feet that was too painful to walk on, and so he made himself a set of crutches from pieces of wood. When he came into the clinic I cleaned and dressed his wound, provided him with a meal, gave him a new pair of crutches, new clothes, and some over-the-counter pain medication that would last him until the next day. It is a special responsibility to have to meet the needs of people on such a basic level before their more acute medical needs can be met, and for this reason, there is a remarkable sense of connectedness that comes from providing care for people that need so many of the things that we take for granted.

The kind of nursing education you get at Villanova cannot prepare you for every aspect of nursing that you will come across; no kind of nursing education can. But what my education at Villanova did teach me was how to use the skills I learned and the character I developed to be the kind of nurse that makes differences, both great and small, in every patient they come across, no matter their needs and no matter their circumstances.”