Lounging on a sandy beach was not on the summer to-do list for USC School of Pharmacy students Irene Chen and Chioma Nwozuzu, who instead launched a program for high schoolers to educate them about health disparities and careers as medical professionals.
The two future pharmacists were named Albert Schweitzer fellows in support of the outreach project they created for local Title 1 high schools. Title 1 schools, which serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds, receive federal funds to reduce the achievement gap between these students and those in schools with better resources.
“I grew up in the South Bay area so I knew what health disparities looked like, and I knew what they felt like,” Nwozuzu said.
When applying for the fellowship, Nwozuzu wanted to propose a project that would give students an understanding of health disparities, but she had no teaching experience. Chen fulfilled that need, having taught science and health in the South Bronx through Teach for America before coming to USC.
Looking around their neighborhoods, there were only bodegas selling unhealthy foods.
“Many of my students would miss class because of health issues like asthma and diabetes,” Chen said. “Looking around their neighborhoods, there were only bodegas selling unhealthy foods.”
Two heads are better than one
Chen’s teaching experience and Nwozuzu’s passion for bringing change to neighborhoods yielded a dynamic team whose proposal met the criteria for the Schweitzer fellowship, which requires student projects to address unmet health needs.
Their summer project was to design and implement a curriculum on health disparities as part of the Upward Bound Math/Science Program, a six-week residential program held at USC for students from low-income families in which neither parent has a college degree.
The program aims to prepare students to ultimately enter college and succeed once they’re in. Chen and Nwozuzu oversaw two-hour sessions five days a week for the Upward Bound students.
The curriculum included presentations from various health professionals on timely topics — from health literacy to medicine as a career and the evolving role of the pharmacist on the health care team.
Our goal was to expose students to a broad range of health professionals.
“Our goal was to expose students to a broad range of health professionals — pharmacists, physicians, dentists, optometrists, nurses — so that they would realize the many careers they might consider,” Chen said.
The program attracted numerous speakers from USC and throughout the community, who gave students a taste of their work as well as advice about what it takes to be a health professional. Among others, David Campa discussed his work at as a physician at the Hubert Humphrey Comprehensive Health Center, Steven Chen talked about how pharmacists are improving health for patients in area safety net clinics and Mel Baron gave students an inspiring talk about health literacy and life in general.
“We want the students to understand some of today’s pressing issues in health,” Nwozuzu said. “And we hope to spark an interest in becoming a health professional, especially since minorities are so underrepresented in the medical field.”
Sparking interest, changing lives
Over the course of five weeks, students worked in groups on a single health disparity — such as diabetes, asthma, obesity, teen pregnancy and the uninsured — in their neighborhoods.
Students explained the disparity and developed ways to address it at the community level.
“It’s a baby trying to raise a baby so it doesn’t really work out,” said Natalie Sanchez, who was in the group covering teen pregnancy. “Nobody wins.”
A presentation on food deserts drew an especially keen interest among the participants.
“Obesity is surely related to the last presentation about food deserts,” said Muhammad Khan. “All the bad food and food sources surrounding our community contribute to obesity.”
With summer ending, Chen and Nwozuzu are preparing to return to school in the second-year of their Doctor of Pharmacy studies. But as Schweitzer fellows, they will also continue to offer their health disparity course to students at Bravo Medical Magnet High School.
“We make a good team,” Nwozuzu said.
“And together we hope to make a difference in the lives of the students we teach,” Chen added.