“One thing that makes DePaul stand out is that we incorporate the community in our program—not many nursing schools do that,” says Karen Larimer, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing (in photo, right). “Our students gain an understanding of the ‘lived’ environment of patients and learn how that environment affects outcomes.”

Nursing students begin community-based service learning right away. In the first quarter, they choose an organization and uncover its basic information: how it’s funded, what pressures it’s under, and what population it serves. In the second quarter, a class on nursing theory draws a line from the organization to the community population: How do social and physical factors affect health? Finally, students apply their knowledge in practical ways.
“Our students learn so much by working in the messy, real world,” says Larimer.
“Nurses—especially those in a public health setting—are the ‘jack of all trades’ professionals in health care. They have to know what programs are available and how to access these in the neighborhood. Now, with the Affordable Care Act, there’s a huge learning curve for people: How do we help them get care? Where do we send them?  As 21st century nurses, we need to know content and context—we need to see the big picture.”
One opportunity to exercise that “bigger picture” perspective is by participating in the American Heart Association’s "Check Change Control" initiative, a multi-disciplinary, community-wide program intended to improve participants’ blood pressure. People in underserved populations—specifically in Chicago, African-American and Latino adults—are encouraged to stick with a plan for keeping their hearts healthy.
“Basically, the program is meant to help people understand what their blood pressure numbers mean and how their behavior can improve those readings,” says Elizabeth Florez, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing (in photo, left). “Over a period of four months, participants get their blood pressures checked regularly, and they track their numbers on an AHA website, Heart 360. Through the program, they learn about a heart-healthy lifestyle.”
So far, the AHA has seen good outcomes with the program, as Florez explains: “By the third screening, a lot of participants start asking questions: ‘Why is my blood pressure high? How can I decrease it?’ When they get the information, they’re motivated to change. It’s inspiring to see.”
In 2013, the program attracted more than 300 participants in Chicago. Larimer and Florez acted as consultants to the AHA, helping identify the right populations and communities, then choosing sites and getting them up and running.  In 2014, they plan to begin collecting data to study the program’s long-term impacts.
“We can do all this ‘feel good’ stuff, but if it doesn’t work, what’s the point?” says Larimer.
“When it comes to behavioral change, many variables come into play. We want to find out whether the changes that participants make are lasting. In the upcoming academic year, our second-year students will have the opportinity to participate in this research effort and get hands-on experience in evidence-based care.
“The 'Check Change Control' program is one way we’re making sure that DePaul’s School of Nursing is on the radar. We’re carving out a unique role with the AHA.”
Karen Larimer was recently inducted as a fellow in the American Heart Association. Beginning in 2016 she will serve as the Metropolitan Chicago American Heart Association board president, the first nurse to hold this prestigious job.
In 2013, Elizabeth Florez received the AHA Multicultural Initiative Champion Award. She serves as the chair of the Metro Chicago AHA "Go Red for Women" Ambassador Committee and is a member of the AHA Multicultural Leadership Committee.