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“The best experience”: Alumni Reflect on SHECP Internship Impact

(From left) Seth Shank ’18; Laura Siles-Suaznabar ’17; and Hannah Hornsby ’15, M.D., all participated in an eight-week summer experience serving through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty internship during their cadetships.

A college summer—a few short months that most alumni may only vaguely recall from their cadetship—left a lasting impression on Hannah Hornsby ’15, M.D.; Seth Shank ’18; and Laura Siles-Suaznabar ’17. Years later, these alumni reflect on the personal and professional impact of an eight-week summer experience serving through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty internship.

Since 2012, VMI has participated in the SHECP program, which began at Washington & Lee University. The SHECP internship sends students to serve at nonprofit organizations with the goal of encouraging them to understand the complex causes and consequences of poverty and make a difference in the lives of impoverished individuals. Each summer, VMI sponsors up to five cadets to participate in SHECP alongside students from 19 SHECP-affiliated colleges and universities. Placements are in rural and urban settings and include a variety of programs like education and youth outreach, community and individual services, law and business, and healthcare and wellness.

Sabrina Laroussi, Ph.D., associate professor of modern languages and SHECP director at VMI, said SHECP affords cadets many opportunities, including the ability to experience and serve communities, aligning with VMI’s citizen-soldier mission. After graduation, SHECP students, like these alumni, pursue a range of careers, and this is the program’s goal. “We want to help realize that every individual can be involved in anti-poverty work in their professional or civic lives,” said Timothy M. Diette, Ph.D., SHECP executive director. “It really is a full spectrum across careers, and, to me, that’s gratifying.”

Hornsby grew up in Stafford, Virginia, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from VMI before attaining a Doctor of Medicine degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School. She completed her SHECP internship at Daily Planet Health Services, a free clinic in Richmond, Virginia, that provides health services regardless of patients’ housing, financial, citizenship, or insurance status. As a primary care physician today, Hornsby said her internship reinforced her passion for helping those underserved and modeled good patient-physician relationships.

Hornsby, only a rising 3rd Class cadet at the time, began fulfilling her career goals as she worked alongside doctors on the Daily Planet’s medical team. Physicians there modeled a holistic approach to medicine that treated patients’ immediate medical needs while also helping them secure major social determinants of health like jobs and housing. Hearing these patients’ experiences opened Hornsby’s eyes to the healthcare barriers individuals can face.

“Something that always stuck with me was one patient who was trying to get a job and housing, but she didn’t have a birth certificate,” recalled Hornsby. “Something as small as a birth certificate, which most people just have and take with them when they move out of their parents’ home—something as small as that piece of paper—was really limiting her ability to apply for jobs and get housing.”

Hornsby was also inspired by the head doctor’s relationship with her patients. “They weren’t just a name coming in or a problem; instead, she knew them and had really built a good relationship with them. I think that is a huge part of medicine … when you offer advice or prescribe medication, if you have that relationship with them already, they’re much more willing to trust you and go along with the medical plan.”

As a family physician, Hornsby practices broadly with a focus on sports medicine and musculoskeletal injuries. In addition, Hornsby plans to continue the work she began during her internship, providing medical care to underserved communities. “I’ve always been interested in health care and volunteering and helping those underserved. I think my experience just reinforced that passion for me in that, as I move forward with my medical career, I certainly want to continue to seek out those opportunities to help,” said Hornsby.

Shank graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and business and works at Deloitte LLP in Washington, D.C., in environmental and sustainability consulting work. During his SHECP internship in summer 2017, Shank volunteered with a nonprofit in New York City called Urban Upbound, which serves communities in public housing and low-income neighborhoods. Shank’s desire to serve through SHECP was motivated by one of the same reasons he chose to attend VMI: He loved the Institute’s holistic focus on the military, academia, and, particularly, public service. “I really tried to lean into public service,” said Shank, which made SHECP a natural choice for him. “I loved the idea of stepping in to do work for a nonprofit in a topic area that I got to pick and engage with.”

Urban Upbound aims to break poverty cycles by providing underserved youth and adults with tools and resources for economic prosperity and self-sufficiency. One of Shank’s primary responsibilities was preparing a financial literacy course for young adults ages 16-24. Shank would also go out canvassing to reach these communities, knocking on doors throughout the city.

Working in New York City and interacting with communities he had no prior experience with could have been intimidating, but Shank felt his cadetship, especially the Rat Line, helped him handle everything he encountered with confidence. “In a new situation, a new city, everything has the possibility of being overwhelming. VMI gave me a lot of confidence that I am able to handle it,” said Shank. “I picked VMI because I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, and I picked the Shepherd program for the same reason. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone while also bettering myself and bettering the community around me.”

While Shank brought a repertoire of technical knowledge around financial literacy to his internship, what he gained was professional direction and personal growth. “What I think I really gained a lot of knowledge about is the type of life that I wanted to lead and the type of career that I wanted to lead while also being able to provide a service.”

Siles-Suaznabar earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from VMI with a double major in international studies and modern languages and cultures (Spanish) and now works at Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. For her SHECP internship in summer 2016, Siles-Suaznabar worked at City Squash, a nonprofit focused on enabling New York City youth to fulfill their academic, athletic, and personal potential.

Her days began by taking a 6:30 a.m. train from Brooklyn to City Squash in the Bronx, where she helped students with ACT and SAT prep as well as other Squash activities. “I would eat lunch with them, study with them, and help them to apply to college,” she said. With 90% of her students being Spanish speaking and bilingual, Siles-Suaznabar enjoyed changing their perspectives on the English language. Standardized testing vocabulary was one of the areas students struggled in, and Siles-Suaznabar would help them with memory tricks and show the similarities in Spanish and English root words. She loved “making that light bulb moment go off” when her students would say, “‘I know this word!’”

Along the way, Siles-Suaznabar made close friendships with her fellow SHECP interns, learned to live frugally, and, perhaps most importantly, she gained confidence. “Prior to [SHECP], I lived in Washington, D.C., my entire life, and I’m a tiny, quiet girl,” she quipped. VMI taught her to lead, but she hadn’t yet practiced those skills in a real-life situation. “I’ve never really spoken out unless I had to, and VMI pushes speaking out, but this is a different type of speaking out when living in New York.” In one example, Siles-Suaznabar was standing at the Times Square platform when she saw a man board the train with an enormous gardening knife. The platform was busy, and no one was paying attention. Knowing she should say something, Siles-Suaznabar got the courage to approach nearby police officers and alert them. “Working with SHECP gave me the confidence to speak for myself and for others,” she said.

To this day, she said the lessons she learned and the experiences she gained from the SHECP were invaluable. “On a personal level, honestly, it was the best experience ever. I would recommend this to anyone.”

  • Mattie Montgomery

    Mattie Montgomery Assistant Editor

    The assistant editor assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication. The assistant editor serves as liaison between class agents and chapter presidents and the Agencies’ publications, as well as provides backup photography for events.