So what did you do during your summer vacation?

Schweitzer Fellows Chioma Nwozuzu and Irene Chen

Lounging around on a sandy beach was not in the stars last summer for pharmacy students Irene Chen and Chioma Nwozuzu, who launched a unique program for high school students to educate them about health disparities and health careers.

The two future pharmacists were named Albert Schweitzer Fellows in support of their project. Their successful proposal aims to teach students from local Title 1 high schools about health disparities with an eye toward igniting an interest in health careers and empowering them to address disparities in their own communities. Title 1 schools serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds and are provided federal funds to reduce the achievement gap between these students and those who attend better-resourced schools.

“I grew up in the Los Angeles South Bay area so I knew what health disparities looked like, and I knew what they felt like,” says Nwozuzu. “But I didn’t know what they were called until I learned the term while an undergraduate at Rice University.”

When applying for the Schweitzer fellowship, Nwozuzu wanted to propose a project for high school students that would give them 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 studying at USC.

“Many of my students would miss class because of health issues like asthma and diabetes,” says Chen. “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 similar to where she grew up made for a dynamic team whose proposal perfectly met the criteria for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship which requires student projects to address unmet health needs. The two young women were among the 15 students chosen as this year’s fellows by the Los Angeles chapter.

Irene Chen instructs the students during their summer Upward Bound course.

Their project was to design and implement a curriculum on health disparities as part of the summer Upward Bound Math/Science Program held at USC. The six-week residential program is for students from low-income families in which neither parent holds a college degree. Coordinated by Alejandro Ruiz, Upward Bound Math/Science Program aims to prepare students to ultimately enter college and succeed there. Chen and Nwozuzu provided 2-hour sessions, five days a week on health disparities to the students.

Their curriculum included presentations by various health professionals on timely topics – from health literacy to medicine as a career and the evolving role of the pharmacist on the healthcare team.

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.

Irene Chen

The program attracted numerous speakers came from across USC and throughout community, to give students a taste of their work and career advice about what it takes to become a health professional. Among others, David Campa, MD, discussed his work at as a physician at the Hubert Humphrey Comprehensive Health Center, Steven Chen, PharmD, talked about how pharmacists are improving health for patients in area safety net clinics, and Mel Baron, PharmD, gave students an inspiring talk about health literacy and life in general.

About Baron’s presentation, student Carla Arellano wrote: “I like how honest you were with telling us your story. I’m sure we all have our plans, but we are all simultaneously terrified of failing. You let us know that life will take us where it wants and that we might just end up with a lifetime partner and a 60-plus-year career.”

In addition, a panel of students studying to become health professionals shared insights into how to get from high school to higher education.

“We want the students to understand some of today’s pressing issues in health,” says Nwozuzu. “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

Chioma Nwozuzu (right) with Upward Bound Math/Science Program student Irma Nunez.

During the course of five weeks, students worked in groups on a project focusing on a single health disparity in their neighborhoods. Projects looked at diabetes, asthma, food deserts, obesity, teen pregnancy and the uninsured. Students were tasked with explaining the disparity and coming up with 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.”

The presentation on food deserts sparked 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.”

The students presented these culminating projects to each other. In the fall, the Upward Bound Math/Science Program continues on Saturdays on the USC campus.

With summer ending, Chen and Nwozuzu are preparing to return to school in the second-year of 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,” says Nwozuzu.

Adds Chen, “And, together, we hope to make a difference in the lives of the students we teach.”