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Engaging Students Through My University Signature Experience (MUSE) Project


When Mandi Vlam left her job as a financial planner in order to become a full-time caretaker for her mother who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, the University of Utah alumna, with undergraduate degrees in Humanities and Social and Behavioral Science, knew the decision would have both personal and professional implications. She understood the disease would likely take her mother’s life. What she did not realize at the time was how, in her mother’s death, Mandi would miss her role as caretaker. Through a volunteer position at a retirement home, Mandi sought to fill the void. In doing so, she discovered that the fulfillment she’d found in caring for her mother was not limited to the experience of assisting a family member; helping others, particularly older adults, was her passion. “I decided to change course and pursue a career in nursing,” Mandi says

For students, learning moments such as those Mandi experienced can have a profound and empowering impact on their intellectual growth, their professional development and their path in life. Recognizing this, the University of Utah in 2011 launched the My University Signature Experience (MUSE) Project, designed to help students shape their careers through signature learning experiences. “The University of Utah has a myriad of programs, projects and centers where students can have experiences that broaden their minds and enrich their lives,” says Assistant Professor Alexa Doig, who is the director of the MUSE Project in the College of Nursing. “The MUSE Project has gathered these opportunities in one place so all students have the chance to find an opportunity that excites them.”

A cornerstone of the MUSE Project within the College of Nursing is the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. The program offers pre-nursing and nursing students interested in research the chance to participate in research projects early in their education and cultivate first-hand knowledge of how the evidence for their future evidence-based nursing practice is generated. A special fast track in the PhD program is also available for baccalaureate-prepared nurses whose career goal is to become an independent research investigator. “Our hope is that the mentoring and role modeling nursing students receive from the nurse researcher may motivate some to pursue a career as a PhD-prepared researcher leading their own investigations,” says Doig, who, during her own undergraduate studies participated in a work abroad program in England conducted research with nationally recognized gerontologists, served in student government, taught at a science and engineering camp, and played rugby on a collegiate team. “I could not have foreseen the enormous impact that each opportunity would have on my career.”

Throughout her pre-nursing work and now undergraduate studies at the College of Nursing, Vlam has honed her interest in issues surrounding gerontology through her involvement with several research projects, including Professor Kathi Mooney’s Partners in Hospice Care: A Program Project Grant Exploring and Supporting Family Caregivers During Hospice Care Through Bereavement. Assisting on the PO1 project has been meaningful to Mandi, not only because of her own experience as a caregiver, but because it has helped her develop a strategy for her own career in nursing research. “Working on the PO1 project opened my eyes to how much research is needed in helping the aging population,” says Vlam, who will graduate in August and plans to attend graduate school beginning in 2014. “Many faculty members have supported me, listened to me and advised me on my research career.”

Regardless of a student’s entry point into the MUSE Project, Doig is committed to ensuring all come away from the experience engaged— and empowered. “At the College of Nursing we prepare leaders in health care delivery whose actions and discoveries change the health of individuals and communities worldwide. When a student tells us a MUSE Project has changed their life, we know they have the potential to leverage their experience to positively change the lives