Reaching out to minority students

April 9, 2001

Heather Heilman

When Ted Chen arrived at Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in 1990, the school was located in the Texaco building, where one narrow road separated it from the Iberville public housing development.

"That small street was wider than the Pacific Ocean," remembers Chen, professor and chair of health communication and education. "The two sides were like two different countries that required a passport to go from one to the other."

But students wanted to bridge the divide, and the faculty wanted to help them. Slowly, the school began to be involved in things such as after-school tutoring, job training and other programs in the Iberville community. Over time, those efforts grew and developed along unexpected lines. The school's current work to recruit minority and disadvantaged students into the field of public health is in part the result of outreach efforts in Iberville.

"There's a shortage of minorities in public health," said Caroline Tilton, director of community health programs. "This profession is really focused on addressing health disparities right now, and it's very important to have people in the profession who look like the people they are helping and who can speak the same language. So our role is to cultivate those people who will be able to go forth into those communities and do the kind of work we know needs to be done."

The public health school has applied for a Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP) grant from the federal government's Health Resources and Services Administration. HCOP is a long-running and well-established program with the aim of helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds enter the health profession.

At one time, Tulane's medical school had an HCOP grant. But HCOP programs in public health are a relative rarity. Currently, only two public health schools in the nation have funding from the program.

At Tulane, the grant would fund BRIDGES (an acronym for Building Resources for Improving Disadvantaged Groups' Educational Status), a comprehensive endeavor that would involve high school students at the New Orleans Center for Health Careers, a public vocational high school; undergraduates at Xavier University, University of New Orleans and Southern University; and Tulane public health students. Chen would be the project director.

"This is a very integrated approach," Tilton said. "We're using our students as mentors and tutors for the high schoolers. We're working with individual students and their parents. We've got a summer program that focuses on helping them with their test-taking skills and other areas where there may be some weaknesses. At the college level, we're working very closely with sophomores, juniors and seniors as they begin to make their decisions about what to do next."

Tilton said that work will go on even if the school is not awarded an HCOP grant. Students have already established an ongoing relationship with the New Orleans Center for Health Careers, for example. And in March they hosted "Diversity Days," an open house for African-American and Hispanic college students to meet and talk with public health students, faculty and graduates.

They learned about the field and the breadth of issues and opportunities within it through a program that was largely designed by current students. Part of the challenge is simply making students aware of the existence of public health as a potential career field. Most people know what doctors and nurses do, for example, but not as many know what can be done with an MPH in epidemiology or international health and development.

But even students who are set on going to medical school may find that training in public health is a useful complement to their medical education. Another hurdle is Tulane's perceived inaccessibility. Tulane is not cheap, admits Elaine Boston, dean of admission at the School of Public Health.

"I tell the students not to let money be their only consideration," she said. "There are grants and money to be borrowed. We work with people to make it possible for them to come." It was helpful for students to talk to graduates of the School of Public Health at the open house.

They heard that there are interesting jobs to be had in public health, and that Tulane graduates are well-prepared for them. And no one seemed concerned about not being able to pay back his or her student loan. It also helped to see that the school truly welcomes minority students.

"A lot of African-American students have the idea that Tulane is not for them, that they wouldn't fit in here," Tilton said. "We try to emphasize that we're a team, we're a family. We love our students. It felt great to see students leave a session and go up to admissions to get an application. They see that we're opening our arms to them and they're willing to give us a try."

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