Urban Health Scholars ‘Pay It Forward’

Urban Service Track alumna, Dr. Jennifer Jaskolka (standing far left), observes current UST scholar and third-year dental student, Himank Gupta, performing a dental exam during a free health clinic. (Photo provided by Petra Clark-Dufner)

Urban Service Track alumna, Dr. Jennifer Jaskolka (standing far left), observes current UST scholar and third-year dental student, Himank Gupta, performing a dental exam during a free health clinic. (Photo provided by Petra Clark-Dufner)

UConn’s Urban Health Scholars are known to take on challenges others often avoid. They welcome the opportunity to work in low-income urban areas and make Connecticut’s neediest and most vulnerable citizens their priority. And when they complete their two-year training in the Urban Service Track (UST) program, they continue to give back—teaching and mentoring younger students.

Now UST is working with the UConn Alumni Foundation to create a forum for UST grads to stay in touch, share experiences, and network with each other and current UST students. Dentist Graham Garber, a member of the original UST cohort, welcomes the idea.

“UST graduates will inevitably become pioneers in their health care fields due to their unique perspective on health care,” Garber says. “An alumni association benefits current UST members because it provides real-world insight into the challenges that face health care providers trying to serve underserved populations.”

It also benefits the alumni themselves, adds Kara Anastasiou, an advanced practice registered nurse who was also among the first group of Urban Health Scholars. Connecting with fellow alumni who share the values of the UST program helps to “reignite the passion for this line of work,” she points out, especially when real-world practice isn’t always in line with those values.

Paying it forward

Dr. Graham Garber, among the first group of UST scholars, doing a blood pressure check during a free health clinic. (Photo provided by Petra Clark-Dufner)

Dr. Graham Garber, among the first group of UST scholars, doing a blood pressure check during a free health clinic. (Photo provided by Petra Clark-Dufner)

Since its inception in 2007, UConn’s extracurricular Urban Service Track program has graduated 148 students from its medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy schools, as well as from Quinnipiac University’s physician assistant program. In 2012 UST added students from UConn’s School of Social Work. As of mid-2013, these students have contributed nearly $250,000 in volunteer hours in underserved urban communities around the state, based on yearly state averages of the value of volunteer time, according to UST co-director Petra Clark-Dufner.

Urban Health Scholars gain hands-on experience as they run volunteer health education and screening programs in urban communities and organize free clinics for children, seniors, veterans, migrant farm workers, individuals with HIV/AIDS, and other vulnerable groups. The program also holds eight learning retreats a year, each one focusing on a different underserved population, and arranges trips to Washington, D.C., to learn about advocacy with state and national partners.

A survey of 2013 UST graduates indicated that approximately 57 percent feel their future plans include a career working in primary care and providing care to the medically underserved.And many of them welcome the opportunity to give back to the program by serving as preceptors, mentors, and speakers at program activities.

A special kind of person

UST student Himank Gupta and UST alum Dr. Jennifer Jaskolka taking a closer look while performing a dental exam. (Photo provided by Petra Clark-Dufner)

UST student Himank Gupta and UST alum Dr. Jennifer Jaskolka taking a closer look while performing a dental exam. (Photo provided by Petra Clark-Dufner)

UST attracts a special kind of student, one like Anastasiou, who says UST was the reason she chose UConn over Yale’s Master of Nursing program. “I have always had a passion for caring for the underserved and was thrilled to learn about UST and its mission when I was looking at schools,” she says.

Dr. Jennifer Jaskolka, a chief resident of the General Practice Residency Program at St. Francis Hospital, describes her fellow UST alums as “the most compassionate, dedicated and motivated individuals I have ever met. All were hoping to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Dr. Hugh Blumenfeld was recruited to help launch UST in his first year as a resident in family medicine and is now a core faculty member in the UST program, “UST students have a real social commitment, a real sense that there are social inequities, a passion about those issues. They see medicine within a bigger socio and political framework. As they spread out into their careers, they have a lot of influence in the fields they’re pursuing.”

A special kind of health care provider

UST takes the unique perspective and commitment of these students and gives them the tools, experience and knowledge to work in the often complex health care environment of the urban underserved. A critical aspect of that training is its interprofessional approach, bringing together students, faculty and practitioners from a variety of health professions to collaborate, both on student training and on patient treatment.

UST alumna, Kara O’Brien (standing), doing a blood pressure check during a free health clinic. (Photo provided by Petra Clark-Dufner)

UST alumna, Kara O’Brien (standing), doing a blood pressure check during a free health clinic. (Photo provided by Petra Clark-Dufner)

“I believe UST has greatly influenced the way I practice,” shares Jaskolka. “Working with an interdisciplinary team so early in my educational career has made me very comfortable focusing on all aspects of my patient’s overall health. I believe UST gave me a strong background in cultural competence and an understanding of unique issues faced by the underserved.”

Garber, who practices at iSmiles and formerly at United Community and Family Services in Norwich, puts it this way: “Ultimately, my experiences as a student in the UST made me a more responsible health care provider.” After graduating, he sought a professional environment that treats the underserved and embraces a collaborative approach to patient care. What he found, however, was that even in a community health center that shares these objectives, he is often the one to be most proactive about communicating with providers in other disciplines.

Anastasiou, who currently practices at Trinity College’s Health Services, agrees. “I believe that the interdisciplinary collaboration that is integral to UST has helped develop a confidence in collaborating with my fellow health care professionals and has strengthened the importance of keeping the patient as the most essential person in the collaborative plan development.”

Why do they stay involved?

A strong testament to the program is the number of Urban Health Scholars who continue to stay involved as alumni. One of them is Courtney Beyers, a hematology-oncology nurse at UConn Health. She earned her bachelor’s degree this spring and is now a UST speaker and coach. Through UST, she found her calling working with individuals with sickle cell disease.

“I continue to stay involved with UST because I want to ‘pay it forward’ and return the experiences that were provided to me,” she says. “UST is truly a family, and it is an honor to continue to play a part in the lives of students as they grow and learn.”

Garber, who remains active as a preceptor for community health fairs, a faculty advisor for community research projects, a mentor, and a speaker at UST learning retreats, offers another reason. “I stay involved in the UST because I feel strongly about the impact this program can have on underserved populations,” he says. “I feel like the UST might actually help change the way some dental health providers practice when they graduate.”

Jaskolka, also a UST mentor and preceptor, says she is grateful for what the program taught her about health care policy and barriers to care in local populations, and for helping her become comfortable performing medical procedures while working as a member of an interdisciplinary team. “I now have the opportunity to aid other students in getting some of these invaluable educational experiences,” she relates. “It’s the least I can do to give back to UST and show my appreciation for all I have gained from the program.”

Blumenfeld praises the program for its quality and interprofessional core faculty who are passionate educators and clinicians. He also offers a simpler reason for his continued involvement in UST after all these years. “This is the most fun I have had as a teacher and as a doctor,” he says.


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