Reflecting on the Series

Maria Guerrero, James He, and Serena Verma piloted their creative Change Grant project in 2020 amidst the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. Originally designed as a kidney education after-school program for Middle School, the limitations of the post-pandemic world and the heightened need for social reform led to a new project focused on healthcare equity, racial representation in medicine, and mentorship for underrepresented minorities navigating high school and college decisions. Serena, Maria and James, with the incredible support from the KDSAP executive board, began a series of webinars to tackle these topics and empower minorities all across Connecticut. Their mission continued as they spread the word of the informative webinars over social media and even partnered with Hartford's Legacy Foundation to get the word out directly to schools. Now, as Maria, Serena and James graduate from UConn and Embark on the next step in their lives, they reflect on the journey of the Change Grant and how it has influenced their values and goals.

James He

When the crossroads of the COVID-19 pandemic and the black lives matter movement intersected last spring, we seized the opportunity to pivot our Change Grant project towards the creation of a webinar series designed to heighten awareness and access to higher education for high school students, particularly minorities interested in health professions. At such a historical time, I relished the chance to learn about racial health disparities, a topic that often arose from our organization’s discussions of the outcomes of kidney disease.

As we came together to put together our webinars, I began to learn so much about the underlying issues surrounding the health disparities. Previously, I had never heard of race corrections in diagnostic procedures, nor the differential treatment regimens that were instituted based on the race of the patient. Unfortunately, many of these practices have become standardized, and may cloud or bias a physician’s judgement. Their repeated use shrouds their invalidity and perpetuates their place in medicine. Similar to other racial issues, abolishing such unfair practices requires active advocacy and motivated support.

We designed our webinars to serve this purpose by exposing the inadequacies and boosting interest in pursuing healthcare careers amongst a diverse high school population. Not only did our collective efforts help me understand the issues, but they also emulated the team-based practices that physicians rely on when making important medical decisions. When putting together powerpoint slides to guide our webinars, we often engaged in stimulating discussion about the implications of the health disparities, and how we will encounter the same issues when we ultimately enter the field. Such motivated discussion hardened my resolve to contribute to revising these practices.

After graduating this May, I will continue my pursuit of becoming a physician-scientist, a career in which I hope to strengthen our understanding and resources to combat disease. Being involved in this Change Grant project relayed to me the humanitarian perspective of medical science, and allowed me to reflect on the specific impact I intend to have when I start my practices. Along the way, I plan to stay vigilant with addressing these matters, and preventing new ones from arising. Thank you Change Grant for empowering my citizen voice in promoting widespread revision of institutional racial biases in the medical field.

Maria Guerrero

The first physician role model I looked up to was my own mother. She was the first representation of medicine I had since I can remember. However, as an immigrant from Ecuador who at the time was not a citizen and nowhere near fluent in English, she unfortunately had to give up her education and medical degree as a sacrifice for her children to receive the best opportunities in America.

Upon reflecting on my own experiences in the healthcare field, I realized that I had not encountered many Latino doctors who understood the everyday cultural and language barriers of Latino patients. Although I was determined to become a physician one day like my mom, I was a first generation student who had no idea what it took to one day receive a white coat.

When the pandemic hit, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands to devote towards my medical school applications. When it came to my personal statement, I had the monumental realization that my mom was the starting seed in my journey. It also dawned on me that not many of my Hispanic and Black peers had a physician in their family or knew of a physician who looked like them to inspire them to also believe it could be achieved. This, coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement, and disproportionate rates of COVID-19 affecting marginalized Black and Hispanic communities throughout the U.S, fueled my passion towards making a difference in the severe lack of representation in healthcare.

When looking towards options of what we could possibly do in the midst of a pandemic, I knew we needed to target underrepresented minorities in high school. I, myself, received little guidance from my own high school, and only later learned of opportunities by advocating for myself. Knowing what I know now, I did not want the next student to have to endure the same challenges I faced when tackling on the college application process, the FAFSA, extracurriculars, and other requirements. Through the creation of the webinar series, I envisioned a future where we could plant the seed of inspiration in the next generation of underpresentend minority students to enter the healthcare field.

This project has been a pivotal point in my college career as I was able to put myself in the shoes of the mentor that I never had. Through interviewing doctors and medical students, performing background research and engaging in important discussions on the roots of racial biases and disparities in the medical field, I became increasingly aware that the information and experience would forever change my perspective as a future physician. A change for the better of my future patients.

This coming August, I will be attending the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in hopes of becoming the culturally competent and empathetic physician I aspire to be and be able to directly dismantle healthcare disparities and systemic barriers. This webinar series is one I will continue to promote to my future mentees wherever I go. I want to thank the Change Grant, and our project mentor Melissa Berkey, for providing Serena, James, and I with guidance, endless encouragement, and support in realizing our vision for this series.

Serena Verma

The extreme racial inequality highlighted by the atrocities committed during the coronavirus pandemic is what motivated me to explore a different path with this project. After the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others, I wanted KDSAP to take part in the crucial movement that was taking our nation by storm: BLM. I began educating myself on not just the social, but the medical and health disparities that exist between white, black and hispanic populations in this country. I realized that for so long, the medical system had been dominated by mostly white, cis-gendered men, and if treatment outcomes for black and brown populations was going to change, we needed representation.

That is the thought process that birthed our webinar series: Why Representation Matters in Healthcare. Due to the pandemic, James, Maria and I quickly realized that our in-person kidney education lessons were not going to work. We also realized that there were bigger issues at hand. Our goal became to develop a mentorship with high school students from underrepresented minorities, which are students from black or hispanic backgrounds who may not necessarily feel supported to pursue a career in healthcare. We quickly got to work, making episodes to address the problems of medical disparities between races, why we need more black and brown healthcare providers, and how to even get started on this path. We used our own experiences to make prospective college students feel supported and inspired to pursue their dreams.

Being a part of this project has been integral in my discovery of what it means to be anti-racist and an active contributor to social change. Before the pandemic, the screenings I participated in played a vital role in my understanding of socioeconomic factors and determinants of health. We interacted with diverse populations on a weekly basis and were able to learn about them and play a small role in their medical care. When the pandemic hit, we had no idea how we were going to continue the mission of a club that relies so heavily on human interaction and service. Yet I soon realized that educating myself was a powerful way to become a better healthcare worker and member of society. I was able to educate myself on the clinical disparities between racial groups and play a role in the dissemination of this important information. Instead of taking a reactionary role in the healthcare field, I was able to proactively understand an issue and make a meaningful contribution to change the cycle. As someone who aims to be a physician, I know that this newfound sense of agency on the welfare of others will take me far in my goals to understand and educate the many variables of health in our society.