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Inside the Work of Miami’s Student Health Champions

By Elaine K. Howley
June 2, 2023
A hand drawn image featuring the UM logo and 3 health care workers.
A logo created by Karina Vargas for the Student Champions program.

Ermulda Fortune, a senior at North Miami Beach Senior High School, always thought she’d become a nurse someday, following in the footsteps of several relatives who are nurses.

But an innovative Student Champion program at her school has her thinking maybe a different health care path would be better. She feels she can have a bigger impact on individuals and public health as a hospital administrator.

“With nursing, you’re working with people and you’re helping out,” she says, “but on the health administration side, you’re circling at the root of the problem to solve it.”

That’s the sort of transformative outcome that program leader Elizabeth Pulgaron, PhD, was hoping for when she and her team at the University of Miami’s Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine launched the Student Champion program at three Miami-area public high schools last year.

Pulgaron, who is a psychologist and director of mental health services for the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation School Health Initiative promoting behavioral health at the Mailman Center for Child Development, says the Student Champion program started with a National Institutes of Health grant established early during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was intended to promote a culture of school safety through outreach from school-based health clinics at several public high schools in Miami.

The grant was initially designed to support research initiatives, but as the pandemic evolved, so too have the program’s aims; what started as an effort to bring COVID-19 testing onto public high school campuses via on-site health clinics has morphed into a way of introducing potential future physicians, nurses, and other health care providers to careers in medicine and public health by integrating them into efforts to improve public health outreach initiatives at local high schools.

“Very early in the grant we decided that we needed Student Champions — some key players who will help us” involve more of the school community and boost the success of the outreach efforts, Pulgaron explains. She says they were looking for feedback about what approaches and events worked best. They started collaborating with teachers, administrators, coaches, and other adults in the school system.

When it came time to apply for the grant again for the 2022-2023 school year, Pulgaron incorporated information about these Student Champions, and proposed to expand the program to include not just school administrators and teachers but also students.

While Pulgaron says initially she and her team weren’t entirely sure how it would all work, once the new grant was approved, they got to work building a team of Student Champions.

They started by creating an application for students with an interest in health care who would be willing to serve as advisors and advocates for the vaccine clinics and the team’s research and outreach efforts.

Pulgaron and her team worked with HOSA — Future Health Professionals, a global student-led organization that promotes career opportunities in the health industry — to help recruit students for the program. Three Miami-area public high schools signed up, and students from 9th through 12th grade are eligible to apply. Pulgaron says most of those involved are in 11th or 12th grade.

Still in its infancy, the program currently has 33 active student champions who receive a $50 monthly stipend, a modest token of the team’s appreciation of the students’ time and involvement. Students meet a few times a month in a club-like setting and also attend events designed to provide resources for the rest of the student body.

Learning From and With Each Other

Before long, Pulgaron says the students in the program had forged a bi-directional relationship with the University of Miami team. Students were helping with health fairs and other campaigns while also providing insight and feedback to the team about what worked and what didn’t.

“We were asking for a lot from the students,” she says, “and we thought it was only fair to actually share with the students as well.”

So, they began offering educational opportunities and practical experiences for the students to help them learn more about health care in general and explore the possibility of future careers in the field.

These sessions involved discussions of multiple public health topics, along with skill-building exercises in problem-solving, advocacy, and public speaking.

“Depending on what the students requested, we started bringing in different players from the university to facilitate workshops,” Pulgaron says. They hosted panels and hands-on leadership activities.

In time, the program “became kind of like a club,” Pulgaron says. She and her team also discovered that when offered a chance to explore topics in health fields, some students were eager to participate.

Pulgaron and her team have shared their findings with the Florida Department of Health and Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Diving Into Health Care

Fortune got involved with the program at the behest of one of her teachers. She says it piqued her interest because “we learned [about] different topics each week,” including sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, and mental health.

Another student champion, Jazmine Gomez, a sophomore at North Miami Senior High School, attended an orientation session last summer where. Pulgaron made a presentation about the program.

“I got interested in it because she was a psychologist and I want to be a psychologist as well,” Gomez says. “I just thought it was a good start,” especially given that despite her own interest in health care, she has no family role models currently working in any health field.

Indeed, Gomez’s involvement in the School Champion program has offered her a chance to learn about different health professions and the opportunities available to her when she graduates from high school in two years.

Gomez says she has also enjoyed the ability to work collaboratively with other Student Champions to solve problems.

“One of the exercises we did was we had to order a group of people from oldest to youngest without [any of us] being able to talk,” she says.

The aim of the exercise was to help the students learn about alternative means of communication. They developed hand signals and found other ways to figure out ages and birthdates to solve the riddle. It’s a simple example, but it underscores that being able to communicate across language barriers is a key element of modern health care.

Fortune has also participated in several events, including a school carnival where students played games, awarded prizes, and presented about different health care issues such as marijuana use and women’s health. Such outreach activities are a hallmark of the program that’s helping deliver important health care information to students in an accessible and memorable way.

The Next Generation of Health Care Leaders

To wrap up a successful year, the Student Champions recently visited the Miller School of Medicine to get an even closer view of health care and academic medicine. They took a tour of the campus and had a chance to meet with faculty and ask questions.

Most of the students had never visited a medical campus before, Pulgaron noted.

“They normally see us only in their clinics at their schools,” she says, adding that seeing the medical school in person filled in some gaps and showed the students what medical school might actually be like for them someday.

From her perspective, Pulgaron says the program’s impact has been profound.

“It really has been such a joy to engage with the students and staff via a shared passion for education and promoting diversity in the medical field,” she says.

It’s been valuable for the Student Champions, too. Gomez notes that being involved with the program has provided “access to so many people who are involved with the health care field,” from doctors and psychologists to administrators and other representatives of various related fields.

“It opened my eyes because I was able to ask them questions,” she says, which has provided insight into, and inspiration for, what her own journey might look like.

As her senior year draws to a close, Fortune says she’ll be getting her EKG technician certification this spring as a stepping stone into working in health care before she heads to Florida International University this coming summer.

Getting a head start on her career has provided clarity and a sense of purpose that has motivated and inspired her.

“Now I know that this is definite. This is something I really want to do,” she says.

She adds that the public health knowledge and skills she’s gained will help her become a more effective member of the health care field, no matter which specific role she pursues.

As health care continues to evolve, it’s clear programs like the one in Miami are helping the next generation of providers and caregivers learn how to work with others to support public health initiatives.

“It’s been a nice opportunity to interact with students, not necessarily in a patient-doctor relationship, but more in a mentoring or education collaborative, because we really are learning a lot from them as well,” says Pulgaron.