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A Path to Success: Berkeley Public Health students on being Blue Shield of California Fellows

From left to right: Clarisa Coronado (she/her), Cynthia Sanchez (she/her), Ally Wick (she/her), Alondra Ruiz (she/her), Bria Brown (she/her)

At the beginning of the fall semester, Blue Shield of California and UC Berkeley School of Public Health launched a health equity fellowship program. Twenty-eight graduate students were named Blue Shield of California Health Equity Fellows for the inaugural 2022–2023  year; and over the next five years, the program will spend $7 million to support these fellows and future cohorts as the students pursue professional degrees.

The program has the aim of building skills in data and analytics for diverse graduate students—including African Americans, Native Americans, Latinx, Pacific Islanders, and others—to improve health equity and cultivate public health leaders reflective of the culturally diverse communities they seek to serve.

Grace Yao Turkis, director of leadership and professional development at the RISE Office at Berkeley Public Health, says the Blue Shield of California Fellowship Program will help expand opportunities for education and professional training, specifically for underrepresented minorities. “The Blue Shield of California Fellowship program was developed in partnership with [Berkeley Public Health] for the purpose of increasing the number of URM students studying public health and creating expanded opportunities for their education, in order to help them flourish in the field,” Turkis said.

The fellows come from across the U.S. and worldwide, with many hailing from California. Other represented states and countries include Utah, Washington, Connecticut, New Jersey, Michigan, Florida, Honduras, Mexico, and Vietnam. During the 2022/23 academic year, fellows are enrolled across an array of divisions, including Epidemiology, Biostatistics, Health Policy and Management, Environmental Health Sciences, and Community Health Sciences.

“I’m new to the Berkeley area. So far, my time at [Berkeley Public Health] has been great. I love my cohort mates, the staff, and the faculty. I feel supported in the transition,” said Blue Shield of California Fellow Jordan Williams. “With Blue Shield, it’s been an additional layer on top of that, opportunities to build a network and build community.”

“When it comes to success, there is no substitute for feeling that you are welcome and part of a broader ‘tribe’,” said Assistant Professor of Biostatistics Alejandro Schuler, who jump-started some fellows’ journey into the field of data science with a bootcamp before school started. “Community doesn’t come automatically, especially when your background is poorly understood by people around you.”

The fellowship not only provides financial support to the fellows, but also an array of professional and academic support including tutoring, mentoring, leadership development workshops, and networking opportunities with prospective employers to deepen cohort engagement.

Fellow Joel Rubio, said that Blue Shield of California stands out as an organization that supports students beyond just funding. “There are other scholarships where the message is, ‘Here’s your money, bye!’, but I want to continue fostering relationships with donors or the organization. With Blue Shield of California, they’re definitely putting in effort and time with all these other resources.”

Upcoming fellow trainings include customized training in the software program R and discussions around the real-world application of public health degrees.

The R training “is structured to give the fellows immediate data plumbing skills that they can put to use in their work,” said Professor Schuler. “My goal was to get fellows comfortable with the real process of programming. It’s critical to learn how to dig through the Internet to find answers and to build confidence that you can figure things out.”

“The program is enabling fellows to gain skills in health care management and data science that will complement their skills in their concentrations. This will make them more competitive for health care and public health leadership positions,” said Hector Rodriguez, professor of Health Policy and Management.

“Through this fellowship, I’ve been exposed to people who work [at Blue Shield of California] and they let us know what kind of options are out there, working in health equity, or in the DEI arm of the health insurance industry,” said Fellow Cynthia Sanchez.

People of BPH found in this article include: