That was the biggest reward for Aviva Aguilar, a rising third-year student in the College of Medicine, from participating in a national program designed to give medicine students from underrepresented backgrounds hands-on experience in improving access to quality healthcare for people living in medically underserved communities. Whether it was by singing a silly song about chicken wings, dancing or making meals with nutritious – yet familiar – ingredients, Aguilar found ways to bond with the people she was there to serve.
Aguilar, an immigrant Latina student born in Venezuela, was one of 38 students selected nationally for the United Health Foundation National Medical Fellowships Diverse Medical Scholars program. Each student earned a $7,000 stipend for spending 200 hours on a self-directed community health project.
Rita Aggarwal and Nancy Aquilla, co-directors of a community organization in Akron, Ohio, called Proyecto Raices, guided Aguilar and another rising M3 student, Ashley Houston. in their work for the nonprofit. Further assistance was provided by Michael Appleman, M.A. Ed., director of Primary Care Education and associate director of the Urban Primary Care Pathway at NEOMED.
Aviva Aguilar wrote the following reflection after finishing the program:
The United Health Foundation National Medical Fellowships Diverse Medical Scholars Program was an incredible opportunity.
The motivation for this project was the increasing rates of childhood obesity and the need for family-centered wellness programing in English and Spanish that is relevant to the Latino/Hispanic community. Our goal was to bring our care outside of the traditional exam room into our communities in a culturally competent and engaging way.
Working with the Hispanic families served by Proyecto Raices, we designed programing in English and Spanish to provide education around nutrition labels, the role of vitamins in our bodies, and which foods to find them in. We actively meal prepped together.
My classmate Ashley Houston is hard working and passionate about serving underserved and underrepresented communities. Our communication and leadership styles complemented each other beautifully, and it was awesome to work towards the mission of this project together. She was not selected for UHF, but she came on the project, and I was able to share part of the scholarship with her.
We danced, did aerobic exercises, and held yoga sessions – altogether, 13 via Zoom (required due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and three over YouTube videos, which we shared with the families. I’m bilingual (English and Spanish) and we delivered the sessions in Spanish and English.
It was incredibly rewarding to connect with our local families. We engaged parents and children alike through these activities and a Spanish-language video that we made to explain the COVID-19 vaccines and the importance of getting vaccinated.
One student participant named Julio wrote afterward, “I like the exercises with the punches. I want more where we run and play soccer together. I like these sessions because they help me eat more fruits and get stronger exercising.”
Another student named Alex wrote, “I like coming to every session. I am counting my steps on the pedometer you gave me. I took 121 steps right now! My favorite is the chicken wing song.”
It was gratifying that the families who participated expressed high satisfaction and motivation to continue exercising and eating healthy. This was a pilot program, and our work informed ways to improve it while making it sustainable in the future.
I am excited to help this program evolve, so that more people will get the health care they need.
The United Health Foundation NMF Diverse Medical Scholars Program website advises that applications normally open in August. Aguilar invites any students who are interested in applying to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.