Bridging Campus and Community

Rhonda Lanning’s commitment to reproductive health and birth equity has led to a career of service

Rhonda Lanning stands giving a doula training class in the Refugee Community Partnership

Rhonda Lanning’s commitment to reproductive health and birth equity has led to a career of service

As a first-generation college student, Rhonda Lanning admits that her path to academia was “rather unusual.” After dropping out of high school when she was 16 years old, she ended up getting her GED and found her way to college.

“There weren’t any expectations for me to further my education,” reflected Lanning. “There just wasn’t a lot of understanding of the ins and outs of what it takes to go to college and engage in higher education. But I did find my way, and I studied biology for my first undergraduate degree. During that time I found my passion for women’s health and reproductive health and decided I wanted to become a midwife.”

After graduating, Lanning worked in a reproductive health clinic, which reaffirmed her interests in midwifery. Lanning then returned to school at the University of Pennsylvania, obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing with a concentration in nurse midwifery.

Lanning practiced as a nurse midwife, then came to Carolina to teach students in a clinical setting.

“I found that teaching was really intuitive to me,” she said. “By accident I actually ended up teaching at UNC, and I became very passionate about it. I’ve been here for 15 years.”

In 2018, Lanning finished her doctorate at Duke University. She is now a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Nursing and the program director for Birth Partners.

“I’m very grateful that I’ve spent my entire adult life working in reproductive health,” said Lanning. “So whether that’s as a nurse, a nurse midwife, a nurse practitioner, a doula or an educator, it’s been my whole life’s work.”

Lanning’s ethos is grounded in an awareness of the greater community surrounding Carolina’s campus and a desire to give back.

“We are a big public university,” she said. “I think it’s important that we share resources with our community and build relationships with people who are doing good work. How can we use our resources to help support their goals and their mission to serve others?”

In 2012, Lanning revitalized a volunteer doula program at UNC Medical Center. Over the last 10 years, she has built Birth Partners to be one of the largest volunteer doula programs in the country, with over one hundred volunteer doulas who provide support to people during labor, birth and the immediate postpartum time.

“We are working to build relationships so that our doulas are part of the health care team,” said Lanning. “They play an important role. They are there to provide support — whether that’s information, emotional support or physical support. They are not there to treat or diagnose or do anything other than serve as a caring presence in the room and help that person get the best possible experience that they can have.”

Lanning has expanded the number of volunteers at Birth Partners, and she started additional training for doulas to work in the operating room.

The Carolina Center for Public Service has been a real supporter of Lanning’s work.

Lanning received a grant to develop an APPLES Service-Learning course in the UNC School of Nursing. “Supporting the Childbearing Family” is an interdisciplinary course that brings in students from across campus to complete doula training, childbirth education and lactation training within the first few weeks of the semester while volunteering at UNC Medical Center. After training is completed, students volunteer with the Birth Partners Program.

“That experience for the students — the experience of becoming a doula and being a caring presence for folks during this time in their lives — is absolutely transformative,” commented Lanning. “They have this new window into what health care can be and how powerful it is to be present with another person. Most of them stay on after the semester.”

Through her experiences with the Carolina Center for Public Service, Lanning learned about the Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholars Program (FES). The FES program is a two-year program where scholars work on individual projects while creating a learning community within their cohort and hearing from community partners. Lanning is part of the 2021-2023 Class of Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholars.

Lanning’s project as a Thorp scholar furthers her collaboration with the Refugee Community Partnership in downtown Carrboro, North Carolina. RCP is an organization that helps migrants and refugees settle into their new environment and community. Lanning’s project provides training and experience to people in the RCP community who are interested in becoming a doula to help their fellow community members navigate the health care system.

“As you can imagine, there are many, many barriers in terms of language, finances and new systems,” said Lanning. “It is very complicated to navigate the health care system in this country.”

Through her two years working with RCP, Lanning is strengthening community networks and providing regular doula training. Doulas will be able to support community members in their birth experiences and help with language interpretation and navigating unfamiliar health systems.

Ultimately, this experience builds on Lanning’s wealth of experience in bringing birth care to the greater community.

“This opportunity has allowed me to further my ability to provide support and collaboration with an organization that is providing phenomenal support to people in need. There are a lot of amazing people in this community doing important work. Some of them are within the UNC System and some are out in the community. I think the more we can develop relationships across campus with one another, but also with our community members in the greater area, the better.”

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