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Schweitzer Fellow and Rush University Medical College student Jordan Becerril grew up in a stable home with parents who supported him throughout his childhood and adolescence—but from an early age, he remembers feeling “different.”
“It was a struggle that my attractions didn’t match up with the lifestyle I had been raised to be a part of,” Becerril says. “So my time of getting away from my family when I went off to college was a huge part of my own self-discovery and self-acceptance. College and higher education allowed me to figure out how I saw myself fitting into society.”
As a Schweitzer Fellow in Chicago, Becerril has dedicated himself to supporting homeless and low-income LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) youth in achieving what he hopes will be similarly powerful educational opportunities.
Partnering with the Center on Halsted, Becerril has established programming offering one-one-one coaching on finding GED prep programs, applying to college, creating resumes, completing job applications, and connecting with other resources.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
In many ways, my project found me. When I started medical school, doing a 200-hour community service project wasn’t on my radar. But one of my mentors, Sharon Gates, knew of my interest in helping other Rush students learn more about LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) health. She recommended that I consider the Schweitzer Fellowship.
In determining what my Schweitzer project would be, I did some soul-searching and found myself coming back again and again to working with homeless or low-income LGBT youth. Growing up, it was always a concern of mine that if my parents found out about the “real” me, I would be disowned and lose all my friends, and the life I knew would be, for all intents and purposes, over. It was that fear that kept me from accepting myself, that made me pray and hope that the feelings would just go away, that influenced me to move away for school, and that kept me from coming out to my parents until I had managed to gain some financial stability.
These are fears that no child should have to worry about—but they are all too real to some LGBT youth who are completely disowned by any family they have and are forced to start all over with nothing. It was this population—LGBT youth who are low-income or homeless—that I found myself called to work with.
I’ve learned from experience that when attempting to go into an unfamiliar community to help solve a “problem,” there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about doing it. During my time studying abroad in El Salvador, I remember a particular quote that was on the wall of one of the student houses. It read, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.”
This quote came from Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal woman, in response to mission workers. It has guided my project. Based on my own experience and development—in which an undergraduate education was pivotal—I initially thought that my project would focus on equipping homeless and low-income LGBT youth with the tools to succeed in applying and getting into college. There would be field trips to undergraduate institutions, sessions on financial aid, panel discussions involving undergrads from Chicago institutions who were involved in their respective LGBT groups who could talk about just how impactful going to college had been for them—all leading to youth who were inspired to go to college and live wonderful and fulfilling lives.
But this plan quickly changed as I realized all the hurdles these youth were up against and how many of them had not yet completed high school or attained their GED. The focus of the project became much more personalized as I sought to work one-on-one with these youth to address their particular goals and needs.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I hope that the lasting impact of the project is that those whom I’ve worked with, and whom my successor will work with, will be impacted and empowered.
I think one outcome of my project I hadn’t anticipated has been the effect that it has had on how the youth programs and vocation programs at the Center on Halsted interact. In meeting with my supervisor early on and distilling my Schweitzer proposal to meet the needs of the Center on Halsted, we found that by working on behalf of the vocational team within the youth space during Breakfast Club helped to bridge a gap that had existed between the two teams. Breakfast Club is a morning program at the Center on Halsted where “young adults between the ages of 18-24 are invited to be connected to resources designed specifically for LGBTQA young adults including legal support, health care and housing referrals. In addition, hot breakfast is served.”
This time had traditionally been fairly unstructured, and it was a great opportunity to interact with the youth and engage with them on issues of education and vocation. My time was spent interacting with youth in the mornings and setting up one-on-one appointments with them to work on resumes, find a GED prep program, apply to college, complete job applications, and connect them with resources to help them achieve their goals.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
I think that access to water that is clean and free from contaminants is one of the true limiting factors plaguing developing nations. It has been a concern highlighted by the recent worldwide population milestone of seven billion people. While some developments in methods for cheap and reliable purification systems have been made recently, the issue of finding clean water continues to hinder the health of so many.
Addressing this concern will take continued innovation as well as the support of nations who have the luxury of readily accessible purified water. Innovation will be required to continue to search for effective and reliable methods of bringing clean water to those who need it, and to do so in such a way that is affordable and sustainable. Continued support from developed nations will be pivotal in accomplishing this innovation, as well as in financing and developing research and implementation. Access to clean, contaminant-free water is not an easy problem to address, as is evident in the prevalence of diseases like cholera, parasites, and other pathogens in countries as close to us as Mexico.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
One unexpected outcome of my project was how my work would impact my supervisor, Lynnea, who made my goal of sustainability incredibly easy. Anticipating my hours at the Center dwindling as medical school once again took over my life, she was already putting out a job posting mid-summer for a social work intern to sustain the project. Now, thanks to her efforts, Michaela—a MSW intern from Loyola—has been doing an amazing job. She continues to conduct outreach at the Center on Halsted’s Breakfast Club and plan field trips for the youth, and has even made plans for bigger and better things—such as a resource guide for youth interested in obtaining their GEDs.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?
Being a Schweitzer Fellow is a way of life. It is an affirmation and commitment that I have made to a life of service and solidarity with those whom I know and will come to know through my work. It has strengthened my resolve to work with youth who deserve the best but haven’t been given it, at no fault of their own. Being a part of this community, for life, means that wherever I end up, I will be tapped into an inspiring network of individuals working towards a common cause, and will have the resources to continue the mission of the Fellowship.
Jordan Becerril is a Schweitzer Fellow in Chicago. Click here to read more about the Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Becerril it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the Chicago Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Becerril’s efforts to empower homeless LGBT youth in Chicago, 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.