From the stage to the emergency room: The many hats of Tim Cunningham

U.Va. professor bridges the divide between STEM and the arts

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 In addition to his work as an actor and teacher, Cunningham has been volunteering in countries such as Colombia, Mexico and Turkey with Clowns Without Borders since 2003.

Ariana Gueranmayeh | Cavalier Daily

Each page in the story of Asst. Prof. of Nursing Tim Cunningham’s life is more surprising than the last. Starting his career as a professional actor and volunteering across the world with Clowns Without Borders, Cunningham broke into the world of nursing, now holding an assistant professorship in both the drama and nursing departments at the University. 

Cunningham discovered a love for the theater during his years as an undergraduate student at the University of William and Mary. While he did not plan to pursue acting in a professional capacity, Cunningham says that he was encouraged to take a leap of faith into the arts world by his mother, herself a talented musician. Cunningham traveled across the world as an actor and taught acting as a guest artist at The Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Va., from 2002 to 2005

In addition to his work as an actor and teacher, Cunningham has been volunteering in countries such as Colombia, Mexico and Turkey with Clowns Without Borders since 2003. He was the executive director of Clowns Without Borders from 2010 to 2015.

“Clowns Without Borders has a mission of sharing laughter in zones of crisis,” Cunningham said. “We go wherever we’re invited, when we’re invited. We don’t define the zone of crisis because that’s not our place to judge. If a community group wants us to come in and perform for kids, we do it.”

Cunningham spoke to students at the International Residential College about his work with Clowns Without Borders April 4. Second-year College student Grace Medrano, an attendee at the dinner, was impressed by his passion for the mission to bring laughter to those around the world facing adversity.

“I thought it was really interesting to hear about Professor Cunningham’s work with Clowns Without Borders,” Medrano said in an email to the Cavalier Daily. “He was very animated and upon hearing him speak, you could tell that it was a cause that he cared deeply for.”

However, Cunningham’s work with Clowns Without Borders eventually led him to re-evaluate his career path. While working in Haiti, Cunningham and his fellow volunteers performed in the hospital room of a little girl who was sick because her mother was malnourished during her pregnancy. Soon after the performance, Cunningham learned that the little girl had passed away.

Upon receiving the news, Cunningham was horrified at the struggle to find adequate nourishment in Haiti when people in the United States have the opposite problem, requiring medical help because of overconsumption. He resolved to do something about the perceived inequality.

“When I got that news [regarding the girl’s death], I literally felt something shift in my body — like I was struck by lightning from the tips of my toes to the top of my head,” Cunningham said. “There was a jolt through my body, and I decided that I needed to do something different with my life, and it was either nursing, medicine or law.”

Cunningham ultimately chose the nursing field, getting his degree from the University’s Clinical Nurse Leader program — the program in which he now teaches. He worked in the University’s Health System for a year after acquiring his degree. However, when the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, Cunningham left his job at the University in order to go provide relief.

His humanitarian efforts did not stop there. Cunningham spent nine weeks working in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis of 2013 to 2016 and most recently, worked with Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar due to the ongoing genocide.

Throughout his nursing career, Cunningham has continued to integrate his work as a clown into his practice.

“When I work as a nurse, I always sort of carry some magic tricks in my pocket … If someone's just freaked out to be in a clinic, sometimes doing a little magic or juggling or something can change the mind and someone might laugh in a moment of stress,” Cunningham said.

Since returning to the University as an assistant professor of nursing and drama in 2016, Cunningham has worked to balance his passion for both the arts and medical fields. He rejects the tendency of academia to separate the arts and STEM studies. 

“STEM and the arts — I believe it’s all one,” Cunningham said. “Academia really likes to create silos … but I think we do a disservice to the students that we work with if we act as if this is the one and only, the most important field, or if we don’t allow students to have a full liberal arts education.”

Cunningham’s unique approach to academics has not gone unnoticed by his students. Second-year CNL student Laurel Geis described Cunningham’s multi-faceted approach to teaching, saying that he often begins class by reading a poem or providing some sort of thought-provoking exercise. Geis also made note of Cunningham’s “running office hours,” during which he encourages students to run with him and discuss class material.

“He’s dynamic … he’s very willing to kind of get the tone of a class and say, ‘I’m sensing this class really needs to do this,’” Geis said. “It’s exciting — I always feel like there’s something interesting we’re going to do there.”

In addition to his professorship, Cunningham is the director of the Compassionate Care Initiative, a project started in 2009 to build resilience among future health-providers through self-care initiatives. He and his peers believe in the potential of resilience to make healthcare providers more compassionate in their practice. 

It is safe to say that Cunningham is involved in a little bit of everything, and as Geis noted, passionate about the work he does. The University’s only nurse and clown has left his mark on Grounds in more ways than one.

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