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"I believe it is imperative to learn to address public health factors in the community as a medical student in order to ultimately address these factors as a practicing physician," Vasthare says.

While working with healthcare and public health professionals in South India, Harlem, and North Philadelphia, Schweitzer Fellow Akhila Vasthare arrived at the conclusion that “it is only when a physician integrates their medical education with an awareness of societal factors that impact health that they can hope to truly maximize positive health outcomes in the community.”

The Temple University School of Medicine student is acting on that conclusion. As one of this year’s 15 Greater Philadelphia Schweitzer Fellows, Vasthare is creating and conducting a cultural health education program for middle school immigrant students in partnership with Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

“The program educates students about issues affecting their physical and emotional health,” she says, “and empowers them to learn about cultural factors in their communities that support positive health and developmental outcomes.”

Why did you decide to develop your particular Schweitzer project?

15 percent of children in Philadelphia live in immigrant families. These families are more likely to live in poverty and have reduced access to social services and health care. As such, their children are at an increased risk to developing poor health outcomes as compared to natives’ children.

The Institute of Medicine has shown that as these children age and acculturate to the American lifestyle, their health more rapidly declines compared to native children. This has been termed the immigrant paradox. Research has also shown, however, that immigrant children who claim a strong ethnic identity have a stronger sense of self and better mental health. In fact, these children often have better health outcomes as compared to native children of similar economic background. It has been proposed that cultural practices within these families may promote positive health behaviors and developmental outcomes in their children.

The goal of my project is to conduct a cultural health education program for middle school immigrant students. I work in a K-8 school in South Philadelphia, a school whose makeup is extremely diverse (nearly 75% of students identify as Asian or Hispanic and over 20% are English Language Learners). Specifically, I lead a yoga class to help reduce anxiety and stress and promote physical wellness and facilitate discussions regarding cultural differences on important health issues including nutrition, exercise, and emotional health.

The desire behind this project stems from my work with the children’s advocacy group, Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY). I have worked with PCCY to research and report on the needs of children living in immigrant families. Our research led me to learn about the immigrant paradox. As a future health care professional, I thought about what I could do to tackle these issues and felt a strong desire to be directly involved with this community. I combined what I discovered in the needs of the community with the strengths I could offer. Much thought culminated in the cultural health education afterschool program.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I hope the cultural health education afterschool program will serve as a template for promoting culturally relevant health education for all immigrant students. The data from the Institute of Medicine indicates that we are not meeting the needs of this community because the immigrant youth are developing poorer health outcomes as they age. I hope that this afterschool model will show agencies invested in the immigrant community the importance of promoting creative practices that support positive health behaviors in youth.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Wow, that’s a tough question. I think if we had a feasible solution, our health care system would be meeting the health care needs of all members of our society—but it is not. I can say that one step we cannot forget about in the process of changing our health care system is to provide a voice to and serve those who are underserved. To quote the very intelligent and service-minded individual who we are trying to follow:

“Start early to instill in your students awareness that they are on this earth to help and serve others; that is as important to pass on to them as knowledge” –Albert Schweitzer

If we continue to motivate each other and our youth to help and serve others, I am hopeful that one day we will live in a more equitable and healthy society.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

Time spent outside my weekly afterschool program, specifically in monthly meetings with other Schweitzer Fellows. I did not quite understand the significance of the Schweitzer monthly meetings when I began this Fellowship. I have come to realize that preparing my monthly reports and communicating with other Fellows at the meetings have allowed me the opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on my month’s activities.

These responsibilities also make me hold myself accountable to my project: What did I accomplish this month, and was it enough? How am I reaching my goals? What boulders have surfaced, and how can I get past them? These are all questions I must answer each month. And during the meeting I receive suggestions and encouragement from my fellow Fellows. The reports and meetings have taught me that holding oneself accountable to the needs of the community is extremely important in improving the efficacy of service projects. But I am not alone – I have the support and wisdom of other like-minded individuals, for which I am grateful.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellows for Life) mean to you?

Offering adequate healthcare is extremely complex for families in underprivileged communities. Providing an integrative web that addresses both medical and non-medical issues is the first step in maximizing the support needed and ultimately improving the overall wellness. As a physician, I wish to become part of and further develop this multifaceted approach to community-based health care. However, I believe it is imperative to learn to address public health factors in the community as a medical student in order to ultimately address these factors as a practicing physician.

My past experiences have strengthened my desire to pursue the medical profession and commit to serving underserved populations. I applied to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship with a desire to continue to serve my community and belong to a like-minded community of individuals who share the desire to work with the underserved. I am extremely excited to work with service-minded individuals who stimulate and encourage me throughout this challenging and rewarding process.

Akhila Vasthare is a Schweitzer Fellow in Philadelphia, PA. Click here to read more about the Greater Philadelphia Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Vasthare it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the Greater Philadelphia Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Vasthare’s efforts to improve the health of immigrant youth, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.