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Courtesy of Erica Sokol

The path to medicine led Erica Sokol to her passion, and it wasn’t to become a doctor.

School of Social Policy & Practice graduate student Erica Sokol was taking pre-med courses while an undergraduate at the University of Florida. She was planning to attend medical school, until she began volunteering at a local hospital's pediatric cancer unit. Noticing that the young patients were alone for most of the time, Sokol was inspired to launch the Hospital Buddy Program, a system which matched cancer patients with college students to develop friendships.

A hospital buddy volunteer herself, Sokol recalled volunteering with an 8-year old boy in Florida.  Just a couple weeks before he passed away from leukemia, he wrote his goals for the day to put on display: "to be awesome, be cool, to be funny," Sokol said. 

"If this little boy who is near the end of his life can have these goals, then we should all have these goals.  I want students to be inspired in similar ways," she said.

When Sokol graduated from the University of Florida, she left the Hospital Buddy Program in the hands of other students, and it continues to thrive today. Sokol "still felt so connected to the program" that she decided to launch StudentsCare, a nonprofit organization that replicates the Hospital Buddy Program model by connecting college students with children. StudentsCare is still in its early stages, with inaugural participants Virginia Tech and the University of Miami, but Sokol hopes to bring it to Penn next semester.

“In oncology units and bone marrow transplant units, those kids in the hospitals could be there for months to years, and families have to go back to work,” Sokol said. “These kids really benefit from just having someone there outside of their direct medical team, just as a friend."

StudentsCare provides college students with guidance and resources to start campus chapters that could team up with local hospitals to develop buddy programs. The volunteers will be with the pediatric patients "from the beginning, from when they're diagnosed," Sokol said. The chapters would also receive support for other projects, such as running bone marrow drives and heart screenings. She hopes Penn's pre-med and pre-health students will become leaders of a StudentsCare chapter.

"The goal there is to empower college students to engage in meaningful volunteer experiences," she said.  "There are tons of things to get involved in, but we're looking for people who want to make good use of their time."

Sokol currently interns with ACHIEVEability, a non-profit organization in West Philadelphia providing housing to low-income, single parent and homeless families.  Although the organization is quite different than her own, Sokol said the internship contributes to a "full range of knowledge" that will be necessary to pioneer StudentsCare.

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