PHE Alumni Spotlight: Nico Gusmán

Meet Nicole “Nico” Gusmán, a first year graduate student at the Yale School of Public Health Social Behavioral Sciences Department. Before pursing her in the Master’s of Public Health for social welfare, she volunteered with Peer Health Exchange during her undergraduate years at the University of California-Berkeley from 2009 to 2012. She went on to volunteer and work with AmeriCorps as a health educator. She wants to take what she learned and applied as a volunteer beyond the classroom to find population-based solutions, specifically to increase access to emergency contraceptives. Learn how Gusmán is using technology to reduce barriers for young people.

HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH PEER HEALTH EXCHANGE?

I found out about [PHE] around campus and I thought it sounded like a great idea. Health education was not really a part of my experience when I was going through high school and I knew that I was really interested in creating healthier and happier communities. I was studying social welfare at the time, so when I learned about the health education and peer education, I gave it a try and I loved it.

HOW DID PEER HEALTH EXCHANGE IMPACT YOUR ACADEMIC CAREER AND YOUR LIFE IN GENERAL?

I knew I wanted a career where I could help people live better lives and contribute something to make the world better. I never thought about health education as a way to do that until I learned about Peer Health Exchange and tried it out.

I loved teaching health education, especially sexual reproductive health education. After I graduated, I dabbled in different fields but nothing felt like anything I wanted to continue doing for a long time. Then I met up with a friend who had been a volunteer with me at Berkeley, and she encouraged me to become a health educator with AmeriCorps in the Bay area.

Now I’m getting my Master’s Degree at Yale to translate research into evidence-based interventions and create more sustainable program models around things like health education. PHE determined where I went with my social welfare degree.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR EMERGENY CONTRACEPTION PROJECT?

We’re creating a technology that’s hopefully going to help adolescents and transitional aged youth successfully access emergency contraceptives. The answer to the question, “where can I get emergency contraception” is different depending on your state of residence, your age, your sex, your confidentiality needs, how much money you have, your insurance, [etc].

When I was a Health Educator it would depend on different things like the time of the day or the day of the week, which free clinics were open and whether someone could get on a bus or had their own car. Even today, seeing the changes to the ACA and health insurance in the United States, the answer to the question might be scrambled for people. In addition to the barriers, there’s conscience clauses in some states that allow pharmacists to refuse to medication like emerging contraceptives based on their personal beliefs and not on medical or professional concerns.

When we’re thinking about teens, especially lower income teens, they have special barriers and considerations: limited transportation, little to no disposable income, age-based discrimination. That is coupled with limited experience dealing with medical institutions, insurance, and public programs on their own with little autonomy over their schedules.

We’re creating Easy EC, a solution for Android/iOS smartphones and/or a website that will look and operates as an application. After answering a few questions about their gender, age and location; we get people to the places where they can get emergency contraceptives based on their situation and even provide them with a script to make it as easy as possible.

We’re hoping to release it by next summer.

WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO HAVE ACCESS TO EMERGENCY CONTRACEPTION?

Despite the resources that we have in the United States, unintended pregnancy is still higher than other developed countries. Teen birth rates are also substantially higher. Reducing unintended pregnancies is a national public health issue, it’s a part of the Healthy People 2020 campaign because the health, social and economic benefits are well-documented.

If we’re looking at lowering the amount of unintended pregnancies, we’re not looking at the women using contraceptives consistently and correctly, we’re looking to the women who don’t have something like that in place. Teens tend to use less effective methods or inconsistently than adult women so it’s just really important that access to emergency contraceptives is easier for those women, especially teen women.

I loved PHE because it allowed me to be creative and interact with young people, and be challenged. I felt like I was actually contributing to making the world a better place. Health education was something that I not only enjoy, but that I was good at too. I’m studying so I can transition out of the classroom to more population-based issues. I took that experience beyond my undergraduate years because it’s something I really believe in and I think it’s important. I loved it!

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO CURRENT VOLUNTEERS?

For current volunteers, I would say stay flexible and take care of yourself because burnout is a real thing. Remember the big picture, we’re in a classroom or working with peers, we’re planting seeds. Some of those seeds, you’ll see them immediately but there’s a lot of times where you’ll walk out like, ‘Did anyone understand, did they get something out of that workshop?’ There’s a good chance it’s going to help someone later on, they can pass the information onto a friend, it might help them in their own lives. Remember the big picture.

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Verizon Innovative Learning at Fordham University

Submitted by Benjamin Delikat, Program Director for Peer Health Exchange NYC

I am an alum of Fordham University at Rose Hill, and am very grateful for the education I received and the friends I made while I attended undergraduate studies there. One incredibly important part of my college experience was volunteering with the Fordham Peer Health Exchange chapter, and getting off-campus to engage with young people in the community in a meaningful way.

I am always excited to hear about ways my alma mater is supporting the agency of young people in the Bronx and in New York City. So I was thrilled when Britta Seifert, Program Manager for the PHE chapter at Fordham, pitched the idea of joining the Verizon Summer program as a client.

This program was fantastic for a few reasons – it brought high school students together from New York and surrounding cities to Fordham’s Campus to get the experience of living and studying in a college setting. From coding to communications to business plans, high schoolers learned about entrepreneurship while helping a local business. The program exposed them to new ideas, trained them in valuable new skills, and provided them with individualized attention and support from industry experts and college professors. Additionally, this program offered the opportunity for participating students to get “real world” experience communicating with and solving tech issues for clients like Peer Health Exchange. Over the course of the program, the students paired with PHE helped us to identify the technical needs and limitations to develop an app for our staff to consistently and accurately evaluate the quality of our volunteers in the classroom.

I was consistently impressed (though not surprised) by the curiosity, professionalism, and dedication of the high school students who developed this useful tool. You can learn more about the program and Kiana Jackson, a member of the student group we worked with, below.

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Peer Health Exchange Stands with Planned Parenthood

We are deeply disappointed about the Senate vote to defund Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood provides critical information and health care services to young people across the country. This vote to defund Planned Parenthood has the potential to jeopardize healthy futures for young people everywhere. We believe all young people deserve access to the health resources and services they need to live healthy lives.

 

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PHE Alumni Spotlight: Jasmine Bland

Meet Jasmine Bland, a Tufts University alum. She volunteered with Peer Health Exchange as a health educator, co-coordinator and a senior health educator from 2011 to 2014. Bland joined PHE as a freshman in college at the insistence of her roommate. “At the time, I was grappling with a challenging transition from an under-resourced high school to a resource-rich academic environment. Being a part of PHE allowed me to look back at my high school and community through a different lens– I could finally understand how going without critical information about holistic wellness and decision-making further amplified the health disparities that were already taking a toll on my fellow community members.”

HOW DID PHE IMPACT YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?

PHE helped me to understand that these issues are not intractable and that I can work towards health equity in communities like the one I grew up in. Ultimately, PHE jumpstarted my passion for health equity and introduced me to the public health tenets that inspire my career in public health policy today.

WHAT MEMORY STICKS OUT TO YOU FROM YOUR TIME WITH PHE?

Being a co-coordinator was an incredibly rewarding experience, and the first day of teaching that year was definitely memorable. My fellow co-coordinator and I had been working towards that moment for months, and we were so excited! By the end of the day, first-time teachers were seeking us out to talk about how well of their workshops went. Hearing all of the health educators speak about students asking questions and enthusiastically participating in the workshop was truly humbling and reminded me of how special the PHE program is to both the high school students and the volunteers who teach them.

  • Fun fact: the first day of teaching that year was also my birthday. Being able to experience this was quite the birthday present! 

WHAT DRIVES YOU PERSONALLY TO STRIVE FOR HEALTH EQUITY?

While I was in college, one of my good friends from high school was struggling to stay afloat in her classes because she was going blind. She couldn’t afford her insulin and was losing her vision as a result. Of course, she needed to stay afloat in those classes because a college diploma would increase her chances of finding a job with stable health benefits as an adult. Health equity relates to everything we do (school, work, housing, etc) and I’m reminded of that whenever I think about that friend. No one should have go without the care they need for any reason.

No one should have to choose between textbooks and insulin. It’s my personal mission to chip away at these inequities to ensure that all people have a chance at wellness.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PHE VOLUNTEERS?

PHE volunteers should take the time to learn a little bit about the communities in which they teach. Learn about whom you are teaching, and you’ll be able to better appreciate your students’ experience. It’s also important to avoid a deficit-based lens to teaching. The students are coming to the table with so many strengths, and teaching PHE workshops is an opportunity to celebrate those strengths while supplementing with some new knowledge and skills.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to see how our current volunteers empower young people to make health decisions.

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The Best Defense is a Good Offense: A Walk for HIV Prevention

In the US, HIV/AIDS is a serious public health issue in the United States and can happen to people of any race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation. Cis-women are more likely to get HIV during vaginal sex than men. In fact, 1 in 4 women will HIV positive in 2017.

Every year on March 10th, and throughout the month of March, federal, national, and community organizations come together to show support for women and girls impacted by HIV and AIDS. This year, the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will host “The Best Defense is a Good Offense: A Walk for HIV Prevention.” This walk will take place in honor of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to empower women and girls to protect their sexual health, engage in healthy relationships, and put their best defense into play. The purpose of the walk is to raise awareness of the impact of HIV and AIDS on women and girls, as well as to encourage and empower women and girls to practice safe sex, get an HIV test, and talk to their doctor. 2017 marks the 12th observance of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. PHE’s very own Assistant Vice President of Evaluation and Organizational Learning, Dr. Angela Glymph, will join the walk this year.

Whether you’re dating or are in a committed relationship, you can take these simple, effective steps to help prevent HIV infection for you and your partner:

  • Use condoms every time you have sex. According to a 2013 study, only half of sexually active female high school students used a condom the last time they had sex.
  • Get an HIV test, which is free and confidential. To find a location, visit gettested.cdc.gov.
  • Do not abuse alcohol or drugs.
  • If you are HIV-negative and have an HIV-positive partner, talk to a doctor about taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily pill that can work to keep the virus from taking hold in your body. Daily PrEP can reduce the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%.
  • If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, visit a doctor right away. The doctor may decide that you should get post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). PEP are drugs that may lower your chances of getting HIV after you have been exposed to the virus.

The walk will begin on March 10th at 11:45 a.m. EST at the National Sylvan Theater (Washington Memorial Drwy, SW, Washington, DC 20024) and end at the Hubert H. Humphrey Building (200 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20201). To register for the walk, please visit the NWGHAAD Eventbrite page. OWH invites you to wear red and post photos on social media using hashtags: #NWGHAAD and #BestDefense. For more information and to learn how you can observe National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, please visit womenshealth.gov/nwghaad.

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PHE is Committed to Show Up for Trans Youth

All young people deserve to be healthy and to learn in an environment that supports their health. We stand with trans youth and organizations like the Trevor Project and GLSEN in speaking out against rescinding Title IX protections in schools for trans youth. Acceptance and safety measures for trans youth in schools are critical to their mental and physical health. Please join us to make sure that your community, your schools, and your family show up for and support trans youth.

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PHE Alumni Spotlight: Martel Okonji

Meet Martel Okonji, a California State University, Northridge alum, Okonji volunteered with Peer Health Exchange as a health educator and a co-coordinator from 2010 to 2012. Today, he is the Youth Development Coordinator for the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Learn how his service continues to contribute to his career and community.

HOW DID PHE IMPACT YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?

I learn [about] curriculum, see how curriculum is created. That really made me realize that this is something that I definitely want to do. It played a critical role in being able to develop programs and facilitate program materials. The curriculum helped me see how to be a leader in program development.

Being a co-coordinator, I also empowered other volunteers to be leaders. [It included] empowering my leadership team, like I do right now, learning how to do workshops and facilitating things, using a lot of the skills that I got from volunteering at PHE and implementing it as I do today.

It helped me to be a lot more informed and engaged in what’s actually taking place. It put me in my community, in a different scope to talk to [young people] and examine the conversations that are taking place among young folks.

The greatest thing [about volunteering] is it helped me develop as an individual because I wasn’t too familiar with going into settings with the identity that I hold. I’ve always carried my sexual identity on my sleeve, but not in a educational space and to have that identity and be open with it especially as a health mentor with kids asking me questions.

WHAT MEMORY STICKS OUT TO YOU?

Just going to the schools, especially when I was a co-coordinator–being in the classroom, just engaging with teens and talking about things that need to be discussed, that are not present in our educational curriculum on a daily basis.

I remember I had one student that was like “my friend…” We knew he wasn’t talking about his friend, he’s asking about his self. He then asked, “whenever you give head, should you use two condoms? I’m asking for him because I care about him.”

I wanted to answer that question effectively as possible and talk about sexual relations between two men. I had to make sure that those resources are there and also be a lot more comfortable with myself, there’s a lot of needs the community has. It forced me to put myself out there.

That’s actually my favorite memory. That’s my greatest memory because he also cared about his friends. Clearly no one had that conversation with him for him to ask that question.

He reminded me of me when I was in school. I didn’t have anyone to ask these questions. Since we’re there to discuss health education, kids can take the opportunity to ask questions.

 

WHAT DRIVES YOU PERSONALLY TO STRIVE FOR HEALTH EQUITY?

I think what drives me the most is that there is a lack of resources. It’s what drives me to work in the field of homelessness to make sure all those resources are apparent to the young folks that I work with.

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR WORK WITH THE LA LGBT CENTER. WHAT BROUGHT YOU THERE?

[I went] through a lot of the struggles and challenges that the youth I serve go through or have went through. This is the place where I kinda see myself thriving and definitely want to build here.

I get the opportunity to allow youth to see their future selves, but most importantly gather skills and tools to be effective leaders for themselves as well as for their communities.

I lead an ambassadorship program that includes training, workshops and conferences to get skills and tools to be effective in engaging the youth that are in the center as well engaging themselves to use program services to move further and forward with their lives.

That’s one of the most powerful things that I do, it also creates the drive for them to step up, engage in their communities and participate in creating programs and curriculum toward information that they’re talking about.

WHY ARE THESE RESOURCES IMPORTANT?

Everyone deserves a chance. Programs like [LA LGBT Center] ensure that and bring about healing and empowerment to give everyone a fighting chance to wake up and not feel like there’s nothing left for them.

We all deserve an opportunity to feel safe, like there’s a space for us to go to and explore those identities that empower us, places where we can educate ourselves and feel as if we can see more than just today, tomorrow, we can see next month, next year, even the the next ten years down the line.

WHAT DO SAFE SPACES MEAN FOR YOUR CONSTITUENTS? WHAT DOES ALLYSHIP MEAN FOR THE LA LGBT CENTER?

Essentially, a safe space means that we can come into a space and be ourselves.

That conversations we have won’t make people disgusted with us, the services we use can be suited to our needs. A place to live, thrive and be happy and not feel like we have to watch our back or that someone will attack us because of the conversations that we have or the identity that we express.

Allyship means supporting that and inviting a space for it. There’s a difference between an ally, advocate and activist. So an ally supports it and allows us the space. An advocate would create the space and an activist would fight to make sure there are spaces and policies that take it to the next level. An ally supports it and they see us just as equal.

I would like for everyone to become activists, to wake up everyday and fight the fight but I also understand that healing is just as important and people haven’t had the chance to heal from all the trauma. I hope for people to become advocates, for folks to really look at themselves as advocates by providing safe spaces for folks who have needs and asking for that. Advocate for folks, provide resources.

HOW DO YOU ENVISION HEALTH EQUITY?

Health equity is universal. If there’s ever anything wrong, if someone has any health challenges, they have access to care.

[It would be] the day that we can all be aware and make informed decisions. That means we have access to health education but also resources for the services. So health equity is education and services.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PHE VOLUNTEERS?

Do as much as you can. It’s one of the greatest experiences that I’ve ever had and it would be so beneficial to hone in on your professional development. It gives you the opportunity to go inside spaces and talk with your community and give them valuable information that is so so so necessary.

Do not stop at service, continue on that development and take in everything that you learned.

Save your materials, reflect on them, and thinks about all the stuff that you’ve done. Really push yourself to hit every goal that you possibly can.

It’s a great resource for development and if you know a place that needs it, make that connection!

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PHE Stands With Immigrants

The current political and social climate is increasing the risk for young people’s health. Real and perceived discrimination leads to toxic stress and unhealthy behavior—from substance abuse to refusal to seek medical services. Young people who are immigrants or have other marginalized identities are particularly at risk in this moment.

We stand with all young people, especially those affected by the “Muslim ban” this past weekend. We applaud our home cities – the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles – for showing their active support for immigrants as sanctuary cities. We will do our part alongside our partners to empower young people with the knowledge, skills, and resources to make healthy decisions.

Please join us in standing strongly behind the mission of PHE. Make sure schools in your community are supporting all immigrant families right now with access to mental health services, adequate English-language learner programs, and other programs. Share resources with any immigrants you might know and learn more directly from immigrant youth. Urge your community organizations and faith-based institutions to be a loving presence to all. And support organizations, PHE and so many others, that are showing up for young people every day.

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How PHE Shaped My Career

By Zoe Sakas, PHE Volunteer

Saying that Peer Health Exchange has shaped my undergraduate experience would be understating how influential this organization has been to me. I came to Fordham as a pre-med student who wanted to change the world somehow. At the time, I thought the best way to make a difference was to become a doctor. I wanted to heal those who were suffering, and to dedicate my life to improving the lives of others. I wasn’t sure of exactly how to do that, but I was very passionate about my mission nonetheless.

I joined PHE freshman year because I was looking for a way to volunteer in the Bronx community, loved working with kids, and was excited about all things health and science related. I figured it would be a fun experience and a good way to make friends. However, I didn’t really understand at the time what I was becoming a part of.

To a high school freshman, there is nothing more important,
and confusing, than the health topics PHE focuses on.

The decisions they make about their health create a ripple effect of positive and negative consequences that shape their future experiences and opportunities, and can greatly affect their ability to achieve their goals. I was forced to confront a privilege that I had not recognized before – the privilege to know how to maintain and improve my health. I have always seen health as the foundation for everything else in life. Happiness and success are much easier to attain when an individual has the resources to support their physical and mental health. Preventable health issues, like obesity, heart disease, STD’s, lung cancer, injuries from risky behavior, liver disease, and more, affect the majority of the population in the United States.

Before working with PHE, I wasn’t aware of how
dramatically social determinants can impact health.

If at 14-years-old a teenager does not know that STD’s can be transmitted by oral sex, or that alcohol use comes with long term effects, or that Pop Tarts don’t have all the nutrients you need for breakfast, then they are at a much greater risk of making decisions that they might regret in the future. Realizing how much of an impact health education can have on the futures of these teenagers has been what has drawn me to the field of public health. Before working with PHE, I wasn’t aware of how dramatically social determinants can impact health. PHE is such a great organization because it gives the students all the knowledge and resources they need to make whatever decisions they feel are best for them. It does not stigmatize certain decisions or behaviors, like teaching abstinence from sex and drugs might, but instead empowers teenagers to take their health into their own hands, which I believe every person should have the right to do. PHE supports the idea that health education should be considered a necessity rather than a privilege, a concept that when put into practice can change the lives of thousands of underprivileged teenagers.

After spending three years taking pre-med classes, I finally came to the conclusion last summer that becoming a doctor is not the right career choice for me. I am a senior now, graduating in just a few weeks, and I am more excited than I can put into words to start a masters program in public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine this coming September. PHE has brought me one step closer to achieving my goal of changing the world for the better. It has helped me realize how important it is to recognize the social determinants of health, and work to change them through influencing policy and practice, conducting research, and providing education and resources to those who need them most.

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Zoe Sakas – Essay Contest Winner

Zoe Sakas

Zoe Sakas, Fordham University, 2016

Saying that Peer Health Exchange has shaped my undergraduate experience would be understating how influential this organization has been to me. I came to Fordham as a pre-med student who wanted to change the world somehow. At the time, I thought the best way to make a difference was to become a doctor. I wanted to heal those who were suffering, and to dedicate my life to improving the lives of others. I wasn’t sure of exactly how to do that, but I was very passionate about my mission nonetheless.

I joined PHE freshman year because I was looking for a way to volunteer in the Bronx community, loved working with kids, and was excited about all things health and science related. I figured it would be a fun experience and a good way to make friends. However, I didn’t really understand at the time what I was becoming a part of. My first semester with PHE, I was assigned to teach about nutrition and physical activity. Easy, I thought. Many of the volunteers were teaching about difficult and uncomfortable subjects like sex and drugs, but nutrition and physical activity I thought would be relatively straightforward. What I encountered in the classroom, though, was not at all what I was expecting. It amazed me how many teenagers thought that Pop Tarts were a healthy breakfast choice, and that Arizona iced tea was much healthier than soda. Most students thought healthy foods like fruit and peanut butter shouldn’t be eaten often because of high levels of sugar and fat.

All of a sudden I realized how important teaching these high school students was. I felt responsible for their wellbeing and their health. By the end of the year, I taught hundreds of students how to eat well and exercise. I began to see how these seemingly simple lessons could impact a young person in such big ways. Obesity can lead to low self-esteem, which will result in a myriad of negative feelings and experiences. I talked with the students about their goals, and many of them realized how not eating well might impact their chances of accomplishing these goals. In the years following, I have taught about mental health, sex, alcohol and marijuana use. The new skills-based curriculum has allowed me to engage in meaningful conversations with the students, and I have noticed that many students really appreciate and enjoy PHE. To a high school freshman, there is nothing more important, and confusing, than the health topics PHE focuses on. The decisions they make about their health create a ripple effect of positive and negative consequences that shape their future experiences and opportunities, and can greatly affect their ability to achieve their goals.

I was forced to confront a privilege that I had not recognized before – the privilege to know how to maintain and improve my health. I have always seen health as the foundation for everything else in life. Happiness and success are much easier to attain when an individual has the resources to support their physical and mental health. Preventable health issues, like obesity, heart disease, STD’s, lung cancer, injuries from risky behavior, liver disease, and more, affect the majority of the population in the United States. Health education is a huge part of this growing problem. If at 14-years-old a teenager does not know that STD’s can be transmitted by oral sex, or that alcohol use comes with long term effects, or that Pop Tarts don’t have all the nutrients you need for breakfast, then they are at a much greater risk of making decisions that they might regret in the future.

Realizing how much of an impact health education can have on the futures of these teenagers has been what has drawn me to the field of public health. Before working with PHE, I wasn’t aware of how dramatically social determinants can impact health. PHE is such a great organization because it gives the students all the knowledge and resources they need to make whatever decisions they feel are best for them. It does not stigmatize certain decisions or behaviors, like teaching abstinence from sex and drugs might, but instead empowers teenagers to take their health into their own hands, which I believe every person should have the right to do. PHE supports the idea that health education should be considered a necessity rather than a privilege, a concept that when put into practice can change the lives of thousands of underprivileged teenagers.

After spending three years taking pre-med classes, I finally came to the conclusion last summer that becoming a doctor is not the right career choice for me. I am a senior now, graduating in just a few weeks, and I am more excited than I can put into words to start a masters program in public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine this coming September. PHE has brought me one step closer to achieving my goal of changing the world for the better. It has helped me realize how important it is to recognize the social determinants of health, and work to change them through influencing policy and practice, conducting research, and providing education and resources to those who need them most.

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