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Leading by example

Faculty-initiated scholarship takes aim at health disparities

From left to right, Alexandra (Sandra) van den Berg, PhD; Nalini Ranjit, PhD; Henry S. (Shelton) Brown, PhD; Deanna Hoelscher, PhD; Courtney Erin Byrd-Williams, PhD; Melissa Harrell, PhD; Augusto César Ferreira De Moraes, PhD

Living in a neighborhood not safe enough to go for a run. Speaking a language nobody at the pharmacy understands. Working a low-paying job in an environment at high risk for COVID-19 infection. Millions of Texans, mostly ethnic minorities, regularly come face-to-face with obstacles like these as they try to lead healthy lives.

“This is a fundamental challenge to public health that we must overcome,” says Harold (Bill) Kohl, PhD, Professor and Associate Regional Dean of Global Health at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in Austin.

Health disparities in Texas manifest themselves in the public health challenges that Kohl and his fellow faculty work to solve; from COVID-19 to child obesity and food insecurity, minorities fare worse in nearly every measurable outcome.

Eager to close these gaps, faculty members at the Austin campus set out in 2020 to create the Austin Faculty Opportunity Scholarship, which helps minority students earn their doctoral degrees at the school and become public health leaders. Most faculty members have given personally to help establish the endowment, as have many staff, trainees and alumni, holding the belief that students from diverse ethnic backgrounds can help effectively solve health disparities that in many cases may affect the students’ own communities.

“We want these students to know that, as they study and research here, they have our enthusiastic support,” says Deanna Hoelscher, PhD, John P. McGovern Professor in Health Promotion and Regional Dean of the Austin campus.

A scholarship can factor significantly into a student’s choice of where to attend school, and for some, it can mean the difference between earning a graduate degree and postponing education for lack of funds. The Austin Faculty Opportunity Scholarship offers another advantage: Students from out of state who receive it will qualify for in-state tuition, saving a sizeable amount on educational expenses.

“Our goal is to attract those students most motivated to make a difference in public health, no matter their financial status or where they are from,” Hoelscher says.

In concert with the Many Faces. One Mission. fundraising campaign and its focus on training the next generation of health professionals, the scholarship will help its future recipients meet a growing need for public health experts—with a wide range of research opportunities at the school including chronic disease prevention, tobacco exposure and prevention, and environmental policy.

“All of this research will help discover practical and applicable solutions to improve public health,” Kohl says.

Hoelscher believes that having more diverse voices in the classroom will lead to additional perspectives and better interventions. For example, a large part of the school’s research involves study participants or community members answering questionnaires. Students from different backgrounds could help ensure questions are culturally appropriate and cover items uniquely important to specific communities.

She hopes that the Austin Faculty Opportunity Scholarship can serve as a model for other groups at UTHealth Houston—both as a faculty-initiated scholarship and a tool to help bring a broader range of backgrounds and viewpoints to campus.

“It shows how we can come together to open doors for students from underrepresented populations,” she says. “It’s important that our student body looks like Texas because they are the future of public health in our state.”
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