Date February 7, 2023
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Brown’s Health Equity Scholars program is changing the face of public health, one student at a time

A cohort-based program for master of public health students is providing the next generation of leaders with the skills and training to bring equity and justice to their public health careers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As Shaunessey Burks applied to Brown’s master of public health program, she shared what “health equity” meant to her: “That everyone… [has] fair access to be as healthy as possible in every aspect… regardless of education, income level, sexual orientation, race or geography. Fair is the key word — not equal!”

The phrase carries personal weight for Burks. While studying biomedical engineering at Alcorn State University, she learned that the company that had employed her asthmatic grandfather for years was criticized for unsafe workplace conditions, a factor her family believed contributed to his death. Shocked and dismayed, Burks made it her mission to improve working conditions for people like her grandfather, and she started researching public health graduate programs. 

“I realized I could combine engineering with public health to help save workers’ lives,” Burks said.

Burks is now one of 12 members of the inaugural cohort of Health Equity Scholars, a scholarship and leadership development opportunity for select students entering the MPH program at Brown. The members of the first cohort graduated from historically Black colleges and universities; the 2022 cohort also includes graduates of Hispanic-serving institutions and others who are from and intend to remain in Rhode Island. All of the students aim to pursue work that improves fairness and justice in health and health care.

Burks created her own occupational health curriculum as part of an interdisciplinary concentration available in the MPH program, one of many ways Brown enables students to chart their own academic course.

“I’m learning so much more than I would have with a standard curriculum, because I’m able to tailor the courses to my interests, take a broad approach that considers diverse aspects of this type of work, and talk directly to people in that field,” she said.

Burks’ goal is to reduce environmental health exposures that affect low-wage workers and their families. That’s what she did last summer as part of an industrial hygiene internship with Intel Corporation, a role she will continue to play in the position the company offered her after graduation.

Experiences like Burks’ — both inside the classroom and well beyond — are among the ways the Health Equity Scholars program is providing students from underrepresented groups the support, mentorship and professional as well as personal skills to thrive. Students receive full tuition plus paid research assistantships, and woven into the curriculum are mentoring opportunities and leadership development sessions.

“Leadership is being able to influence even without authority, and knowing how to effectively communicate and lead a team,” said Ronald Aubert, interim dean of Brown’s School of Public Health. “These are the skills we focus on as part of the Health Equity Scholars program. Mastering these skills, in addition to receiving a top-notch public health education, will help change the face of public health leadership in America over time.”

The program is intended to position students to not only effectively practice public health, Aubert said, but to bring their passion for equity to their work; to make the field itself more equitable, diverse, fair and just; and to change the way health care is provided for people and populations in the U.S. and beyond.

A simple, ambitious goal

The Health Equity Scholars program began with a vision: one of a field of educated and experienced public health professionals who represent the people they serve, care deeply about health equity and strive daily to improve it.

This vision, rooted in the values of Brown University’s School of Public Health, was unveiled in 2020, just as the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic were being absorbed, and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the resulting spark of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the dean’s State of the School address that fall, Dr. Ashish K. Jha introduced the program to the SPH community.

“The goal of the Health Equity Scholars program is simple and ambitious,” said Jha, who is on short-term leave from Brown to serve as the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator. “If you want to address systemic racism as a public health problem, you’ve got to change the face of public health leadership in America. These scholars represent that change. They are a structural intervention into the heart of America’s public health systems.”

While the public health workforce is becoming more representative of the U.S. population, there is still far less diversity at senior levels, according to a 2021 report. The Health Equity Scholars program will educate and empower a new generation of public health leaders, said program director Rosenny Taveras.

With research, public health practice and leadership opportunities being the central driving force of the program, we look to foster equity and make an impact in the health of underserved communities.

Rosenny Taveras Director of the Health Equity Scholars Program at Brown University's School of Public Health
Rosenny Taveras

“With research, public health practice and leadership opportunities being the central driving force of the program, we look to foster equity and make an impact in the health of underserved communities,” Taveras said.

Aubert noted how the program is effective on two fronts: increasing the compositional diversity of students, as well as the diversity of thought and experience that will lead to innovative public health solutions. Ten years from now, he said, with roughly 20 Health Equity Scholars per year, there will be 200 alumni of the program.

“And all will be equipped with advanced and intentional leadership training, a shared experience as graduates of the program, and connected as part of one another’s professional network,” Aubert said.

A network of exceptional public health professionals

Every two weeks, the Health Equity Scholars meet at 225 Dyer St., across the Providence River from the School of Public Health, for leadership sessions held in conjunction with Brown’s School of Professional Studies. Robin Rose, an associate professor of the practice of leadership, has engaged students in discussions about community engagement and leading teams. On another night, Barbara Tannenbaum, a Brown distinguished senior lecturer and communications expert, discussed her research about powerful persuasive communication.

After each session, students share a family-style dinner and catch up with each other. The camaraderie is a treasured aspect of the program, said Jalisa Stanislaus, a second-year Health Equity Scholar concentrating in health behaviors.

“We’ve all had different life experiences, but the fact that everyone in my cohort came from an HBCU feels so supportive,” said Stanislaus, who graduated from Hampton University in Virginia. “It was so great to come here and know I already have a community of people with a shared passion for health equity.”

Stanislaus has applied her studies to a communications job at a pharmaceutical company, which she does part-time from home. She said that what she’s learned about social determinants of health, as well as her internship at the African Population and Health Research Center in Kenya last summer, have given her the confidence and knowledge to contribute to projects across the company, including social responsibility efforts.

“I feel like I was able to bring a fresh perspective to my roles, and I felt valued by my coworkers for my input,” Stanislaus said. She’s also applying behavioral theories to inform her work. “It’s now clear to me how we can use research to guide our approach to reaching a particular audience and helping them improve their health behaviors,” Stanislaus said.

Programs like Health Equity Scholars are important because they bring together a cohort of people who share values and may face similar challenges in adjusting to their new surroundings, said Jai-Me Potter Rutledge, assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Public Health, who helped bring the vision to life.

“We know that how well-connected a person is has a big impact on their professional trajectory,” Potter-Rutledge said. “All of the Health Equity Scholars have the potential to go out and do great things in the field of public health. They are forming strong, lasting connections here so that as they ascend through the ranks of leadership, they’ll continue to have their network to rely on.”

That’s already happening.

During a recent leadership session, first-year scholar Rosemelly Jimenez organized a hearing screening for her classmates where they could learn about the state of their auditory health, an often-overlooked aspect of well-being. Jimenez was conducting the screening sessions as part of her research assistantship with Erica Walker, a Brown assistant professor of epidemiology. Walker and Jimenez were preparing for a community-wide hearing screening the following week; Jimenez had already helped translate outreach materials into Spanish to make sure the city’s Latinx populations knew about the free health service.

Jimenez said her work with Walker had taught her the importance of preventing hearing loss. “I wanted to do this session for the Health Equity Scholars because they’ve done so much to help me,” said Jimenez, who graduated from the University of California, Merced, and is now one of three Health Equity Scholars from Hispanic-serving institutions. 

Jimenez is deeply grateful for opportunity to learn from Walker. “Working with Dr. Walker means that all of the thoughts and ideas that I bring to our meetings are valued,” Jimenez said. “It means I’m truly seen and respected as a researcher. It also means that I’m seen as a person, because she takes the time to check in on me and ask how I am doing.”

Corban Jackson, a first-year scholar and graduate of Tougaloo College (Brown’s longtime affiliate through the Brown-Tougaloo Partnership), was among the students who participated in the hearing screening. Jackson spent most of her childhood in Germany, which offers universal health care, and had been dismayed to learn how difficult it is for Americans, especially those without resources, to get the care they need. She’s concentrating on health policy to help improve the health insurance system in the U.S.

But on this night, Jackson was focused on her own health — she was surprised to learn that she had some mild hearing loss — as well as on her classmate’s public health work.

“I’m here to support my friend’s research,” Jackson said. “Hearing is an important part of health and wellness.”

“Our voices do matter.”

Potter-Rutledge said that student input has been crucial to the evolving design of the program, and that the close-knit nature of the cohorts was intended to create a sense of belonging that would help students feel comfortable sharing insights.    

“It can be hard to come to a university like Brown and immediately feel like you can have conversations about difficult things,” Potter-Rutledge said. “Within this program, we want to create a space in which students feel like they can speak truth and be their authentic selves.”

The idea, she said, is that students will continue to feel that sense of empowerment when they leave Brown and want to start difficult conversations around equity and justice.

Many students have been eager to share their thoughts on the program itself. Levell Williams, a second-year scholar from Tougaloo College, hopes to use communication tools and techniques to improve population health, especially in areas of racial disparity like opioid use. Given Williams’ focus on communications, he identified ways that the Health Equity Scholars program could broaden its reach. He advocated for including photos of the scholars on the program website: “So that prospective students aren’t just seeing an intimidating page with a prestigious logo, they’re seeing ambassadors for the program who look like them, with email addresses so applicants can reach out directly,” he said.

Williams and Burks were part of a group of scholars who urged more engagement with the Providence community — more opportunities to learn from, with and about local organizations working for public health equity and justice. As a result, the students were introduced to leaders at the Providence Community Health Centers, which provide health care services to underinsured community members.

“Not only did we get a great tour from the head of the center, but we also learned about the history of community health centers and how they have ties to the Civil Rights Movement,” Williams said. “It was really motivating to see the work being done on the ground to improve community health in Rhode Island, and I think that’s something we’ll bring with us going forward.”

Student feedback catalyzed other changes, including a stipend for learning materials as well as increased funding support for students participating in public health internships abroad.

“Being part of the first cohort and seeing changes happen so quickly after you share your input has had a really positive impact on students,” Burks said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, our voices do matter. People here really do care what we have to say.’”

Growing beyond Brown

Potter-Rutledge said that one measure of the program’s success is the positive feedback from the scholars.

“The second-year students are telling us they’re achieving their goals,” Potter-Rutledge said. For example, one student is applying to medical school; two are applying to Ph.D. programs; quite a few, including Burks, have secured positions that will leverage their public health knowledge and skills; and others, including Williams, have been accepted to fellowships or advanced internships.

“It was so nice to receive an email from one of the students just a few weeks ago, sharing her great news about her new position, and saying that she couldn't have done it without this program, which taught her how to negotiate a salary, how to conduct an interview, how to think and talk about what she brings to this field as a person of color,” Potter-Rutledge said. “Those types of interactions are a way for us to know that the program is doing what it set out to do.”

Burks said the program has been instrumental on educational, professional and personal levels.

“This program has been very beneficial to me in my journey, helping me realize what I want out of my education here at Brown, what I want out of a career and out of life in general,” Burks said. “Then it helped me develop the necessary skills and make the connections to achieve those goals — and stay centered along the way.”

Health Equity Scholars is the only public health program of its kind, according to Taveras, but the intent is to lead by example.

“People ask whether the program will continue to grow,” said Kathryn Kempton Amaral, senior director of public health leadership, who helped Jha design the program. “But expanding much beyond the current size will make it difficult to provide the same level of attention, mentorship, and, most especially, community — the things that students tell us make the Health Equity Scholars program so special.”

Kempton Amaral said that program leaders hope other schools will develop similar programs, which will extend the Health Equity Scholars network exponentially. 

Stanislaus only wishes the program had existed earlier in her career.

“It’s one thing to offer scholarship money, and another entirely to thoughtfully create an educational program intended to foster leadership, create networks and develop mentorship relationships,” Stanislaus said. “I’m so proud to be part of the first cohort of the Health Equity Scholars program, and I’m excited to see what’s on the horizon. I really think that the program is just going to keep getting better.”