In February 2014, Whitney Schwalm, ’15, was taking an orientation tour of the Men’s Treatment Center at Rubicon, a substance-abuse and mental-health treatment facility, when she encountered a highly agitated man.

“He started using profanity and shouting,” Schwalm said. “He was probably either off his meds or high.”

“I figured that was the first and last time we’d see Whitney at Rubicon,” said Rubicon administrative facility operations technician Dorothy Ball, who was leading the tour. “But instead she starting talking to him and calmed him down.”

A semester later, Schwalm is still volunteering at Rubicon, now as the student liaison for Build It, the University’s civic-engagement program that connects students to volunteer opportunities with public schools and nonprofits in Northside Richmond.

That first semester, Schwalm volunteered at Rubicon to fulfill the service-learning requirement for two community-based-learning courses: Bringing Human Rights Home, co-taught by Jennifer Erkulwater of the political science department and Jan French of the sociology and anthropology department, and Biochemistry, taught by Jon Dattelbaum of the chemistry department.

Schwalm, a healthcare and society major, said her experience at Rubicon helped her gain a better understanding of the language of policy and human-rights claims in addressing mental health and the effect of drugs on brain chemistry.

“Addiction used to be seen as a moral failing,” Schwalm said. “Now it is classified as a disease.”

In particular, she connected Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” a book she was reading for her human-rights class, to her work at Rubicon.

“The majority of the men at Rubicon are black,” Schwalm said. “‘The New Jim Crow’ talks about the racial overtones of the war on drugs and mass incarceration and the effects of drugs and incarceration on people’s lives.”

With the encouragement of Reggie Jenkins, manager of Rubicon’s Men’s Treatment Center, Schwalm led a group session for the men in which they discussed the book.

“I was worried about how the session would go,” Schwalm said. “Here I am, a young, white girl going to school at a private institution, talking to a group of adult men who have lived the experience. So I invited them to participate, and they got very involved.”

“Our clients talked for weeks about the group session Whitney led,” Ball said. “She inspires the clients. She can talk to people and set them at ease. She understands that there are people out there who don’t come from a nurturing, middle-class family. When people ask me what I want in a volunteer, I tell them to send me five more Whitneys.”

For her part, Schwalm acknowledged her experience at Rubicon has helped prepare her for graduate school, where she hopes to pursue a five-year MD-MPH program focused on primary care and public health.

“When you engage in the community, you develop a depth of critical thinking,” Schwalm said. “The questions you ask become more nuanced.”