College of Nursing program helps give gear, books – and this first-year student – a second life

February 07, 2022
A man wearing a hat sitting on a couch with a book on his lap looking at an open laptop
First-year College of Nursing student Blake Marsh studies at the MUSC Harper Student Center. Taking advantage of the school's new "Giving Closet," Marsh was able to get secondhand textbooks and scrubs for free. Photos by Sarah Pack

It was the worst month of Blake Marsh’s life.

But it also might have been the most important one.

In the span of 30 days last year, COVID would take the lives of his aunt, his grandmother and his great-grandmother. 

“That was really hard for me and my family,” he said. “But something shifted in me after that.”

The 24-year-old Pawleys Island native, who had just earned a degree in health care administration, decided to follow a different path. Instead of working behind a desk in a hospital, he wanted to work on the front lines, to give a more “hands-on level of care,” as he put it, to fight this horrible virus. So back he went to school – this time to become a nurse.

“I was like, ‘I want to help,’” the first-year MUSC College of Nursing student said. “Plus, I thought my personal qualities could shine better as a nurse. It requires critical thinking, and it’s fast paced. In nursing, you never know what to expect each day.” 

It probably didn’t hurt that he grew up in the shadow of a big sister who is an oncology nurse. Over the years he had heard all of her stories – uplifting and harrowing. And now, he wanted to make some of his own. Mid-twenties, living alone and enrolling in a post-graduate program, Marsh knew things would be rough financially for a good chunk of his early life. So when he got an email from instructor Amy Smith, R.N., talking about a new resource that provided nursing students in need with free supplies, he didn’t hesitate in contacting her. 

A man wearing a hat exiting a building through a glass door 
Marsh leaves the Harper Student Center after a workout squeezed in between study sessions.

The very next day, Smith met with Marsh, and they got him two pairs of scrubs, all the textbooks he’d need for his first year and a scientific calculator – all for free – thanks to a new College of Nursing program called the “Giving Closet,” a play off the classic Shel Silverstein book, “The Giving Tree.” 

“It’s actually just a cabinet in the student lounge,” Smith said with a laugh. 

But for students like Marsh, it’s so much more.

“I’m going to come out of nursing school with debt, so I’d love to minimize that as much as possible,” he said. “I just feel really fortunate that something like this exists.”

The idea came from Smith’s previous job, teaching in Peoria, Illinois. There, students and faculty would donate old supplies for anybody who needed them. And it was a huge success. So when Smith floated the idea here, it didn’t take long for the College of Nursing Student Government Association to take the idea and run with it.

For nearly three semesters, the SGA collected supplies – anything a nursing student might need: scrubs, books, stationery – and stored them up until they had an adequate stockpile. Finally, this semester they did.

“We have students who struggle simply getting their own textbooks,” Smith said. “So to be able to offer those things to people who need them is very rewarding.”

The cabinet is located in a spot where any student who wanders into the lounge can see it. So they know what’s available, and now that the ball is rolling, they know it’s OK to ask for things. 

Smith said that if anybody requests an item, they get it – no questions asked. Right now the Giving Closet is limited to books, uniforms and lab supplies, but she said there are plans to open it up to other things, like diapers, groceries and gas cards – the sorts of things young families might need at a time in life when money is tight. 

She hopes this inspires some of the other colleges to do the same thing.

“If you boil it down to its most elemental form, it’s simply students helping students,” she said. 

Which means a lot to somebody like Marsh, who says free anything is hard to come by these days. 

“Old textbooks might not be worth much to other people, but they mean hundreds of dollars to me – and that’s huge,” he said. “Not to mention, I really like the idea of a second life for things.”

Marsh could just as easily be describing himself.

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