Beyond the Classroom: Master's Program Independent Study


ACLP Bulletin  |  Spring 2023  |  Vol. 41, No. 2


Destiny England, Graduate Student
University of Iowa
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As a student pursuing a career in child life, it can feel difficult to make an impact prior to becoming certified, so I was excited to pursue opportunities to contribute to the field. Through my graduate program director and instructor, I discovered an academic course that allowed students to create an individualized learning experience under the supervision of a faculty member. This is what pushed me to pursue completing an independent study in my master’s program at The University of Iowa. An independent study is a unique learning opportunity that allows a student to engage in and explore a topic they find interesting in the field they’re studying. Independent studies are often completed with guidance from a faculty member and available for credit at some universities. The end result is a final project showcasing the work the student has done all semester.

During the second semester of my graduate program, I was fortunate enough to help with a support group through Wonders & Worries, a non-profit that provides professional support to children and teens during a parent’s serious illness. The 6-week support group I assisted with was led by two Certified Child Life Specialists, and the primary goal of this group was to help children who had a parent diagnosed with cancer. I quickly became interested in how child life specialists provide psychosocial support and services to children of adult cancer patients. I decided to focus my independent study on the curation of resources for adult cancer patients to assist them in helping their child through the parent’s diagnosis, as well as implementing these resources on our hospital’s website.

The initial phase of my project consisted of evaluating the resources available to patients at The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics through the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center website. During my evaluation, I found that the website had very minimal information available regarding how to help children through an adult’s diagnosis. I compiled a list of what resources were available through the website and compared this to what other hospitals’ websites offered for patients and families. Then, I created an outline of broad topics that could be added to our hospital’s website to provide more information regarding an adult’s cancer diagnosis. Additionally, I met with two patient and family life specialists (both Certified Child Life Specialists) and the Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Program Coordinator at the University of Iowa to discuss what they felt patients and families needed to help them cope with their loved one having cancer. We reviewed what resources they provided for patients and families and discussed what resources I could find that would help fill in the gaps. Based on the CCLSs’ recommendations and feedback from patients and families, I created a comprehensive list of resources including booklets, handouts, and additional websites that aimed at helping adults learn what children understand about cancer and provided suggestions on how to initiate conversations with children about cancer.

After I had the resource lists developed, the next step was to pull the resources together in a mock website to present to the hospital’s Clinical Cancer Center Operations committee in hopes of getting the information put onto their website. I created the mock website through Wix to give the committee a concrete representation of what this information would look like on the hospital website. I included sections on how to talk to children about cancer, developmental considerations for ages 0-18, links to packets the patient and family life specialists provided to families, additional websites such as Wonders & Worries, and a resource list of children’s books for families to download. Additionally, I worked with the director of the Patient’s Library at the hospital to ensure all of the books were available at the hospital library if a patient or family wanted to check them out during a hospitalization. During my presentation, I emphasized the need for more resources to be readily available to patients and families on the website, and the committee discussed how this information could be marketed to patients and staff. They decided to send my ideas to the marketing team to evaluate. After the marketing team’s evaluation, they plan to implement these resources on the website. Additionally, the information I created will be included in the welcome folder given to newly diagnosed adult patients as an additional resource for these families.


My independent study took five months to complete and is still in the process of being implemented at the hospital. Through this study, I learned a multitude of lessons and gained valuable knowledge. First, I realized there were gaps in resources available to patients and families that would benefit them in their journey through coping with a new cancer diagnosis. Second, I was able to see how impactful the role of a patient and family life specialist was and how a child life specialist can provide patient and family-centered care and support within an adult hospital setting. Finally, I gained an understanding of how important interdisciplinary collaboration was in order to succeed in creating and implementing my independent study project. I learned that making connections with various committees, including marketing, the child life team, and the Clinical Cancer Center Operations committee, helped me be successful in addressing a gap in resources while staying within my scope as a child life student.

My advice to students looking for a way to make an impact before becoming certified is to research opportunities to get involved that allow you to keep growing as a student and future professional. For example, look into what courses your university offers, such as an independent study, or seek out projects through a mentor, faculty member, or a professional in the field. Finally, find a topic that you’re passionate about and run with it. You never know what doors will open for you and what you can do to help patients and families during your journey to becoming a Certified Child Life Specialist.