Diverse Scholars

Building a 21st Century Health Workforce

A diverse health workforce and the unique perspective it brings contributes to enhanced communication, health care access, patient satisfaction, decreased health disparities and improved problem-solving for complex problems.1 Cultivating a health workforce that reflects our society at large and delivering personalized, culturally competent care will raise the quality of health care across the board and help spur innovation. That's why United Health Foundation is devoted to nurturing the 21st century health workforce through the Diverse Scholars Initiative.

The Diverse Scholars Initiative works to create a more relevant health workforce, particularly in underserved communities, by increasing the number of primary care health providers ready to meet future health care needs.

Students who participate in the Diverse Scholars Initiative are passionate, hardworking and eager to give back to their communities. Many scholars plan to work in underserved communities and community health centers, tackling population health challenges and health care shortages that have a huge impact on low-income and minority communities. One of these shortages is the need, nationwide, for more primary care physicians. According to America's Health Rankings, only approximately 127 primary care physicians are available for every 100,000 people across the country, and nine states have fewer than 100 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents.2

Since the inception of the Diverse Scholars Initiative in 2007, United Health Foundation has provided more than $16 million in funding in support of nearly 2,069 scholarships. However, investing in the country's 21st century health workforce is not limited only to multi-year financial support. The Diverse Scholars Initiative also provides mentor and internship programs, and assistance with monitoring graduation rates and professional outcomes. Scholars must demonstrate financial need, the pursuit of a degree that will lead to a career as a primary care health professional, and a commitment to working in underserved communities.

Investing in our future health workforce helps to ensure our nation's health care system is the most effective and innovative system in the world. These students all have compelling stories that demonstrate why they are committed to building a better future workforce that can create a 21st century health care system for our country.

(April 2016)

 

1 The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health

2 PDF America's Health Rankings 2015 Annual Report

Meet Diverse Scholars

PDF Grant Recipients

Featured Scholars

Diverse Scholars all have compelling stories that demonstrate why they are committed to a better future health workforce.

Image of Diverse Scholar, Adrial Lobelo
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – Adrial Lobelo

Pursuing an advanced degree in nursing while providing guidance and support for other Latino nurses keeps this Diverse Scholar pretty busy.

Grit. Persistence. Hope. These qualities have endured across generations in Adrial A. Lobelo’s family. Adrial’s grandmother, Solita, expatriated to New York from South America in the 1960s. “This was a time when divorced women with children were frequently denied employment opportunities. The term ‘working mother’ was not part of the lexicon,” shared Adrial. 

Taking a page from his grandmother’s book of determination, Adrial focused on academics and the arts in his studies. As a high-achieving student, Adrial completed high school in three years and was accepted into a nationally renowned university. When the tuition costs became a burden for his family, Adrial was not deterred. He opted to work and take courses on a part-time basis.  Adrial later gained admission into Cornell University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial and labor relations. 

After graduation, he taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to adult learners. He quickly discovered how much he enjoyed the art of teaching, but due to a decrease in federal funding for literacy programs, his hours were drastically cut.

“I wasn’t sure what to do next,” said Adrial. A conversation with a colleague led Adrial to become aware of the many parallels between nursing and teaching, Furthermore, Adrial realized that a nursing education would provide him with the ability to advocate for his grandmother and others facing a complex health care system.  

Adrial enrolled and graduated from the accelerated bachelor’s degree nursing program at SUNY  Health Science/Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. As a newly licensed nurse, he treated and cared for a large mix of Latino patients in New York City. “When patients have a health care provider who shares their cultural background, the quality of that relationship can be enhanced,” said Adrial. 

Adrial continued his studies, earning a master’s degree from Hunter College at the City University of New York and a doctor of nursing practice degree from Wilkes University. Along the way, Adrial became an active member of several organizations, including National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN).  His involvement with NAHN has afforded him opportunities to present at conferences, consult with an advisor network, and provide guidance and support to nursing students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs. 

Today, Adrial is completing his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His principal clinical and research interests are in the areas of psychological distress and resiliency among minority and immigrant populations, disenfranchised grief, nursing education, and health care workforce issues. 

Adrial is grateful for the support provided by the United Health Foundation’s Diverse Scholars Initiative. “United Health Foundation’s involvement in efforts to boost representation of racially and ethnically diverse scholars across the health care spectrum is energizing,” he remarked. 

Adrial was awarded support in 2013, 2014 and 2015 through a partnership between the United Health Foundation and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses.

Image of Diverse Scholar, Alexa Mieses
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – Alexa Mieses

Go to video

Mentoring the future health workforce and helping them achieve their medical school dreams is just one way Alexa is paying it forward.

A native New Yorker, Alexa Mieses says that growing up in the Astoria neighborhood in Queens fundamentally shaped who she is today. “Growing up in a diverse place like Astoria and being biracial has really influenced the way I relate to other people,” she said.

From an early age, Alexa set her sights on becoming a doctor. “My mother had diabetes, and I remember going to the doctor with her and seeing the partnership she had with her physician,” Alexa recalled. “My mom didn’t always follow her diet perfectly or take her medications just right, but I remember that her doctor never scolded her. Instead, she just talked to my mom about how they could do better next time.”

That experience inspired the young Alexa. “I just thought, ‘Wow, if I could have an influence like that in someone’s life, that’s what I want to do,’” she said.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, Alexa attended The City University of New York: City College, graduating in 2011 with a degree in biology. After a full-time research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, in 2012 she began her medical studies at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. A month before her second year of medical school began, Alexa found time to merge her passions of writing and medicine and write a guide to medical school admissions called The Heartbeat of Success. “An organization called Mentoring in Medicine was hosting a 30-day ‘write your own book’ challenge, so I decided to do it,” Alexa said. “I wrote the book in 30 days, edited for a month or so and then published in October 2013.”

Alexa credits her achievements to the power of mentoring, which has become one of her driving passions. “We need more underrepresented minorities in medicine, and one way to make that happen is to mentor them so they’re prepared to take advantage of opportunities that come their way,” she said. That strong commitment led Alexa to pursue a career in family medicine, where she has the opportunity to go beyond a physician’s role and engage in community service, education and mentoring. “When I discovered family medicine, I knew it was exactly what I had always envisioned for myself.”

Alexa is especially excited to be able to serve members of the Latino community. “The Latino community is very underrepresented in medicine,” she said. “In health care, when patients can better relate to their providers, it makes for a better, more therapeutic alliance. With more Latino providers, we can provide more compassionate, culturally competent care to our Latino patients.”

Alexa says the support she’s received through the United Health Foundation Diverse Scholars Initiative has been invaluable in helping her pursue her goals. “The financial support is amazing and is especially significant for someone like me going into primary care,” she said. “In addition, I’ve been able to meet and exchange ideas with colleagues who have similar interests. There’s also a mentoring component that has allowed me to meet Latino thought leaders involved in policy and the legislative process.”

It’s that kind of support, Alexa says, that has helped her get to where she is today. “I 100% did not do this on my own,” she said. “I’ve been very lucky to have wonderful mentors along the way, and I’m excited to pay it forward to help bring greater diversity into the world of health care.”

Alexa was awarded a scholarship in 2015 to support her studies through a partnership between the United Health Foundation and the National Hispanic Health Foundation.

Image of Diverse Scholar, Beverly Apodaca
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – Beverly Apodaca

University of New Mexico student pursuing master’s degree in occupational therapy, thanks in part to scholarship from United Health Foundation’s Diverse Scholars program.

Beverly Apodaca has fond memories of growing up in rural New Mexico with her mother and grandparents. As an only child of a single mother, Beverly enjoyed playing veterinarian to the animals on her family’s ranch, including a number of dogs, horses, goats, cats and chickens.

In school, Beverly’s favorite class was health education and her favorite activity was Best Buddies, a program that paired able-bodied, able-minded students with students who had physical and mental disabilities for friendship and socialization. “I truly loved it, and it made me want to advocate for people with disabilities,” she said.

When Beverly started college at the University of New Mexico (UNM), she knew she wanted to pursue a career in health care, but she wasn’t sure which path to follow. She took an aptitude test, which suggested three options: florist, flight attendant and occupational therapist. “I love both flowers and flying, but decided to explore occupational therapy, even though I didn’t know much about it. When I learned what it does — that it helps people learn to be independent — it made me pursue it with a passion.”

As an undergraduate, Beverly kept busy with classes and a wide range of activities and leadership roles. Through the American Lung Association’s Open Airways for Schools program, she taught elementary schoolchildren how to manage their asthma, a condition she also shares. She held leadership positions with the New Mexico Asthma Coalition and UNM Student Occupational Therapy Association, was a volunteer CPR instructor with Project Heart Start and served as a volunteer driver with Albuquerque’s Designated Drivers on Demand program.

Beverly is currently pursuing her master’s degree in occupational therapy at UNM. Her goal is to work with geriatric patients, helping them design healthy lifestyles. “The reason I want to work with geriatrics is my grandfather helped raise me and I feel like I have a really good connection with older populations,” she said. “I really enjoy listening to older adults and I want to help them enjoy the quality of life they deserve.”

Beverly said her program places a strong emphasis on the importance of understanding cultural differences. “In New Mexico, we have one of the most diverse and unique cultural communities in the U.S.,” she said. “My mother and grandfather speak Spanish fluently and I’m working on it. Also, being rural myself has helped me connect with our rural residents because we share the same values and cherish the same things.”

Beverly was awarded a scholarship in 2014 through a partnership between the United Health Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute to support her graduate studies. She says that being a United Health Foundation Diverse Scholar has helped her in many ways. “It’s allowed me to maintain a balanced lifestyle in grad school,” she said. “And if I’m healthy, I can do a better job helping others to be healthy, too.”

Image of Diverse Scholar, David Koffa
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – David Koffa

Go to video

This Liberian immigrant was part of a cutting-edge cancer research team. Now he uses his experience to impact health care around the world.

At an age when U.S. children are starting school, David Koffa was starting a whole new life, fleeing the civil war in Liberia. “I was only six, so I didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening,” he said. “But when we got to the U.S., I remember it was a night-and-day difference.”

David traces his passion for health care to his early years in Liberia. “Being in Liberia taught me a lot about disparities — social and economic, but also in terms of health care,” he said. “My dad lost his mom at a very young age due to bad medical practices during childbirth. So many Liberians died from conditions that could have been easily treated with proper health care.”

After a brief stint in Philadelphia, David’s family moved to Minneapolis. “Although it was very cold, the quality of life was excellent and the people I met were nicer to me,” David recalled. He had a very successful high school career, participating in a wide range of activities including football, basketball, track, student council, quiz bowl and National Honor Society.

Between classes and activities, David also found time to log more than 400 volunteer hours at local hospitals. “In my culture, we know that a lot of people have helped us, so we have a strong sense of giving back,” he said. “I loved working in the hospital a few times a week, seeing people’s health improve, and the power of support from families helping those people get better.   It was very eye-opening.”

David says his plan was to become a doctor, a goal he pursued with help from a mentorship program at school. “I was able to shadow an emergency room doctor from Hennepin County Medical Center, which was very interesting,” he said. “My mentor kept talking about the school he had gone to, Dartmouth, so I researched it and decided to apply.”

David was accepted to Dartmouth and received a four-year Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) scholarship, sponsored by United Health Foundation. “It was so much more than a financial scholarship,” he said. “It helped me learn how to succeed in college and prepare for a career. There’s also an annual conference where we got to meet a lot of high-powered people who pushed us to be the best we could be. It was a great blessing.”

As a JRF scholar, David was able to participate in cutting-edge cancer research at the University of Minnesota. In addition to the research program, David took part a in a three-month volunteer fellowship working with a youth development program in South Africa with the support of a JRF Rachel Robinson International Fellowship. After graduating from Dartmouth in spring 2015, he served as an intern in Senator Amy Klobuchar’s office in Washington, D.C.  

After his research experience, David began to recognize a deeper need. His passion for business and mission to help as many people as possible needed to somehow collide. It was during this time that David started researching and discovered Optum. “When I saw Optum – the scope and the breadth of the people they reach – the number of hospitals – they are impacting entire countries!” He knew he wanted to be a part of it.

David is now working as a health care consultant in the Leadership Acceleration Program at Optum. His plans to become a doctor changed as he gained more experience in the health care industry. “I realized my passion involved helping people and I could have a greater impact by helping to improve the overall health care system,” he said. “I’m excited about the scope and breadth of what Optum is doing and I want to be a part of that effort.”

David says he is amazed at how his life has turned out and grateful for all the support he has received. “Never in my wildest dreams could I have guessed I would have had these kinds of opportunities,” he said. “Now I want to do my best to give back.”

Image of Diverse Scholar, D'Ayn DeGroat
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – D'Ayn DeGroat

Meet this driven Diverse Scholar honoring her sister’s memory through her passion of caring for others in her nursing career.

D’Ayn DeGroat of Farmington, New Mexico, is thankful for her career as a nurse. “I just love it,” she said. “It means so much to me and I just can’t believe I get to do it every day.”

D’Ayn grew up in Crownpoint, New Mexico, a rural Navajo community, with three older brothers and a younger sister. Her parents, she said, were a strong influence. Her father designed the flag of the Navajo nation, and D’Ayn has many fond memories of his active involvement in the Navajo community. Her mother was also a strong role model. “She was my rock,” D’Ayn said. “She always said I could do anything I wanted if I put my mind to it.”

Unfortunately, D’Ayn faced some challenges on her path to earning a nursing degree. Life took a tragic turn when she was 14 years old. Her family was involved in a car accident that took the life of her 12-year-old sister. “Before the accident, she was just my little sister, and we would pick on each other like sisters do,” D’Ayn said. “But afterward, I learned from so many people what kind of person she really was. She was so caring and so giving, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do in life — to care for people.”

After graduating from high school, D’Ayn went to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, to pursue a degree in elementary education. That same year, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, prompting D’Ayn to transfer to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to be closer to her family. Her father retired to care for his wife, and unfortunately, college became unaffordable. “It was just too much, so I came home to work and provide an extra income for the family and also help care for my mom,” D’Ayn explained.

While she was working, D’Ayn decided to pursue a degree as a nursing assistant at Navajo Technical University. “At the same time I got my certificate, they opened a Registered Nurse program, so I applied to that,” she said. “I got in, worked really hard and finally graduated last year.”

D’Ayn is now working at the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington. The center is located on the border of a reservation, therefore serving many Native patients. D’Ayn says her experience caring for her mother, a breast cancer survivor, helps her better understand what her patients and their families are going through. She also has a special connection with the many Navajo patients she serves. “I can talk to my patients in Navajo, and that’s something they really appreciate,” she said.

D’Ayn says the Diverse Scholars Program has been a tremendous support throughout her career path. “Without the financial support, I’d probably still be struggling to find money to finish nursing school,” she said. “And the United Health Foundation forums have allowed me to connect with so many amazing young people from across the country. They all want to make a difference, just like I do, and it’s so exciting to collaborate with each other and share ideas for how we can improve our communities.” D’Ayn was awarded scholarships in 2011, 2012 and 2013 to support her studies through a partnership between the United Health Foundation and the American Indian College Fund.

Image of Diverse Scholar, Evelyn Ambush
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – Evelyn Ambush

An early curiosity for pharmacy and a dream to study it in the United States drove Evelyn to pursue a career as an ambulatory pharmacist.

Evelyn Ambush became interested in pharmacy at a very young age. “In Lagos, Nigeria, where I grew up, my parents would make a concoction of herbs whenever we got sick,” she said. “They would go into the forest and they knew just which leaves to select according to our illness. They would cook it all up — then we would drink it and feel so much better!”

When Evelyn was just 10 years old, her parents sent her to live with her uncle, a pharmacist who lived in Ondo, Nigeria. “After school I would sit and watch him, and I saw all the people who came to him for medications,” she recalled. “They would all say, ‘Thank you so much — now I’m feeling so much better.’ I knew I wanted to help people the way he did.”

Evelyn had always dreamed of going to college in the United States. “I had a map of America in my bedroom, and I would always imagine myself there,” she said. So after graduating from high school, she left Nigeria in 1984 to join a friend in Chicago. Her plan was to attend a community college to complete her basic requirements before beginning her pharmacy studies. However, she soon received a call from home with tragic news: Her father had died of a stroke.

“The stroke was a complication of his diabetes,” Evelyn said. “His death put an end to my studies because I needed to get a job to help support my mother and my siblings.” Evelyn hated the cold weather in Chicago, so she moved to Houston, Texas, and got a job working at an Eckerd drugstore.

She worked at the store for several years, supporting her family as her siblings grew into adulthood. In 1996, her mother moved to the U.S. to join Evelyn. And in 2009, Evelyn decided she could finally go back to school to study pharmacy. She received two associate degrees with high honors in chemistry and health sciences with a concentration in respiratory therapy from Perimeter College – Georgia State University. She later applied and was accepted to Xavier University College of Pharmacy in New Orleans.

After waiting so many years, Evelyn is thrilled to be finally graduating in 2016 with her pharmacy degree. While at Xavier, she especially enjoyed her research on diabetes treatment and her internship at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans. Her plan is to continue her studies in postgraduate pharmacy residency programs to become an ambulatory pharmacist, which would allow her to work closely with patients as part of a clinical team.

Evelyn is deeply grateful to the United Health Foundation for helping her achieve her long-delayed life goal. “It’s always been my dream to become a pharmacist,” she said. “But I tell people that when God gives you a dream, even when you are not chasing it, it will chase you down. And this one did!” Evelyn was awarded a scholarship in 2014 and 2015 to support her studies through a partnership between the United Health Foundation and United Negro College Fund.

Image of Diverse Scholar, Felicia Andrew
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – Felicia Andrew

Taking the future health workforce global, Felicia is focused on bringing her nursing skills back to her native Palau.

Felicia Andrew says she’s used to explaining where she comes from. “Not a lot of people have heard of Palau,” she said. “Very few can find it on a map.”

Located in the western Pacific Ocean, Palau is a country spread out across 250 islands with an approximate population of 21,000. Felicia grew up on Koror, the most populous island, but she identifies strongly with the outer islands where her family originally came from. She grew up speaking Tobian and Sonsorolese in her home, “but in school I always spoke English and Palauan,” she said.

When Felicia enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, she became a first-generation college student — a big step for her. Her flight to Hawaii was the first time she had ever been out of Palau — and it was her first time on an airplane.

A special orientation program for Pacific Islander students helped Felicia get off to a good start. “The orientation sessions helped us understand what was expected from us, how to manage our time, how to get financial help and more,” she said. “It really helped me feel confident on the first day of school.”

Felicia’s decision to enroll in the pre-nursing program came because of an experience in high school. “My school had a program that helped you get on-the-job work experience, so I chose to work as a nursing assistant and was placed in a hospital. I loved interacting with the patients, learning medical terms and using all the medical equipment.”

Felicia has been actively involved in health and wellness education at her university. She’s a peer health educator for the university’s Student Health & Wellness Program, and she works to raise awareness about mental health issues like alcohol abuse, sexual assault, depression and suicide. “As Pacific Islanders, we are too hesitant to ask for help,” she said. “I tell people that counseling is important and it’s OK to reach out for help with your personal life.”

Being a part of the Diverse Scholars Program has helped Felicia to believe in herself and work hard to pursue her goals. She was especially inspired by her experience at the annual APIASF Higher Education Summit. “I was so happy to get to go to Washington, D.C., and hear from students who had come to America to get their education, just like me,” she said. “I could really relate and it helped to inspire and motivate me.”

Despite the challenging classes, Felicia is focused on her goal of obtaining her nursing degree and returning to Palau. “I think the world needs more nurses,” she said.

Felicia was awarded a three-year scholarship in 2014 to support her undergraduate studies through a partnership between the United Health Foundation and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund.

Image of Diverse Scholar, Kenji Taylor
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – Kenji Taylor

Growing up in a single-parent, African-American-Japanese family, Kenji Taylor was aware of cultural differences. Meet this family medicine resident and Diverse Scholar who is “embedded in the community.”

From a young age, Kenji Taylor was aware of cultural differences. Growing up in a single-parent, African-American-Japanese family, Kenji found it challenging to fit in socially in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where he was raised. “There were no Japanese residents at all, so we probably fit in more with the African-American community, but not completely,” said Kenji. “There really weren’t any role models for us.”

Life changed dramatically when Kenji earned a full scholarship to Brown University. “It was a huge shift,” said Kenji. “Culturally it was very diverse, and socioeconomically it was a total culture shock.” He chose a double major in East Asian studies and neuroscience so he could pursue his interests in both Japanese culture and medicine.

During his junior year, Kenji studied abroad in Tokyo. While there, he was surprised to see how ethnic minorities in Japan were prevented from accessing basic social services, especially health care. He also discovered an interest in business. “I was able to work with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and realized that being bicultural and bilingual was an asset I hadn’t fully appreciated,” he said. When he returned to Brown, he stayed for a fifth year, earning a master’s degree in innovation management and entrepreneurial engineering.

After graduating, Kenji began a managerial training program with The Capital Group Companies, working in Los Angeles, London and Tokyo. While in LA, Kenji had an experience that convinced him to go to medical school. “I volunteered with the board of Clínica Romero, a free health care clinic that serves Mexican immigrants in East LA,” he said. “I realized as a physician I could use science to help individuals from different backgrounds and use my business experience to affect health at a population level.”

Kenji enrolled in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, he managed the Cut Hypertension program, in which medical students visit African-American barbershops to provide blood pressure screenings. The program had special meaning for Kenji because his African-American father, uninsured and out of regular medical care, died of a heart attack in 2008. “Being able to go out to the barbershop is a great way to not only start a conversation about hypertension, but also show African-American men that they can have trusting relationships with health care providers,” he said.

Kenji is now doing his residency in family medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco General Hospital. “In family medicine, you work with all comers, delivering babies, treating children, helping old people,” he said. “You’re very much embedded in the community.”

Kenji says the Diverse Scholars Initiative has been a huge help for him in pursuing his goals. “It’s been immensely helpful to have the financial support, but also the mentorship opportunities,” he said. “It’s so powerful to have people who inspire you and believe in your ability to do great things.” Kenji was awarded a scholarship in 2014 and 2015 to support his studies through a partnership between the United Health Foundation and National Medical Fellowships.

Image of Diverse Scholar, Ray Hill
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – Ray Hill

Throughout his life, music has influenced Morehouse student Ray Hill’s academic and career choices. United Health Foundation looks forward to the encore performance from this Diverse Scholar.

For Ray Hill, music opened the door to his interest in health and wellness. Born and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Ray comes from a family with a passion for music, including a father who plays the saxophone. “I’ve always had an infatuation with the jazz and old-school R&B I heard at home, like The Temptations, The Isley Brothers, Atlantic Starr and The Commodores,” he said.

Ray picked up the family tradition at an early age, starting with piano and then adding alto saxophone and euphonium. In high school, he played in both the concert and marching bands and performed at church and at weddings. After spending two years at Georgia Perimeter College, Ray’s musical talents helped him earn a band scholarship to Morehouse College.

At Morehouse, Ray has played euphonium in the legendary House of Funk marching band. “It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “At first it was really a challenge, traveling out of state every weekend to perform and then having to jump back into classes first thing Monday, but I learned to get really disciplined with my time, doing homework on the road and in hotels.”

Music also influenced Ray’s academic interests, leading him to explore the connection between music and psychology. At Georgia Perimeter, he researched whether listening to jazz while studying helped students perform better on their final exams (it did). At Morehouse, his interests expanded to larger mental health issues.

One thing Ray noticed at Morehouse is that students often fail to reach out when they could use more mental health support. “I’d like to help raise awareness about mental health in general so people could better understand how it affects their overall health and wellness,” he said.

After he graduates from Morehouse in spring 2016, Ray hopes to pursue a PhD in psychology. “I’m specifically interested in researching how different personality factors influence how people respond to government policies,” he said. “My goal is to understand how we can shape health and wellness policy to succeed with different demographics.”

Ray said being part of the Diverse Scholars Program has been a big inspiration for him. “It’s given me a lot of confidence to go out and explore opportunities in health care,” he said. “The Diverse Scholars Forum was really valuable for helping me connect to other students and mentors. It’s just been a phenomenal experience.” Ray was awarded a scholarship in 2013 to support his undergraduate studies through a partnership between the United Health Foundation and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.

Image of Diverse Scholar, Sainfer Aliyu
Diverse Scholars Initiative Profile – Sainfer Aliyu

In pursuit of the nursing trifecta: nursing degree, two master’s degrees and a PhD. Meet this motivated scholar, Sainfer Aliyu.

From growing up in rural Jamaica to studying at New York City’s Columbia University, Sainfer Aliyu has traveled a long road — literally and figuratively.

“We lived in the impoverished Jamaican countryside,” Sainfer said. “My father was a cab driver, my mother was a homemaker. I am the second of seven children, all girls.” Every morning, Sainfer and her six sisters would walk 3 miles to school: “We would do our chores and then set off on our journey.”

Even though neither of Sainfer’s parents graduated from high school, education was a top priority. “If my father had just one dime left, he would use it to send us to school,” she said. After primary school, Sainfer attended a public high school. As public high schools in Jamaica are usually not free to attend, this was a financial challenge for the family. “We had many animals — goats, pigs, cows, sheep — and my mother would sell an animal every now and then to pay my school tuition. Other times, my father had to ask the school for more time to pay. It was a real struggle for them.”

Sainfer’s favorite subjects in high school were math and science, and after she graduated in 1998, she began working for the Bank of Nova Scotia in Jamaica. It was a good job, she said, but she dreamed of becoming a nurse. She saved her money and came to the United States in 2001 to study nursing at Adelphi University on Long Island in New York.

That’s when life became very difficult. “It was one of the hardest times in my life,” Sainfer recalled. “I found out I couldn’t go to school because I didn’t have enough money.”

Sainfer managed to get a job in a restaurant and found a room to live in. After working hard and saving her money, she was able to start her nursing program at Adelphi. She took as many credits as she could, made the honor roll every semester and graduated with honors in 2005. She was immediately hired by Stony Brook University Hospital. “My financial situation became much more comfortable, and I was able to send money home to help send three of my sisters to college,” she said.

However, Sainfer wasn’t ready to take it easy. While working at Stony Brook, she earned two master’s degrees in education and health care policy and management, and graduated with the highest honor: a certificate of excellence. She gave birth to a daughter in 2007. She was named Emergency Department Nurse of the Year at Stony Brook in 2011. And in 2014, she began a PhD in nursing program at Columbia University, where she is currently studying risk factors and outcomes of bloodstream infection, particularly among long-term care residents. She also teaches as an adjunct professor at Adelphi University School of Nursing and Public Health.

How does she do it all? Part of it comes from her drive to give back to others. “I remember the tremendous impact of the nurses in Jamaica, who would come to the communities and serve the poorest of the poor,” she said. “I always felt that nursing would give me the opportunity to help people at the most vulnerable times of their lives.” Also, Sainfer says, “What keeps me going is my faith. I believe my faith shall soar above all things.

Sainfer says it’s all been an amazing journey. “No one ever would have guessed I’d be where I am at this point,” she said. “I’m so grateful to the United Health Foundation for helping to make my dream possible. There are so many resources available to us, including conferences and seminars. Those are benefits you can’t put a price on.”

Sainfer was awarded a scholarship in 2014 to support her nursing studies through a partnership between United Health Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Future of Nursing Scholars program. United Health Foundation was one of the first funders to partner with RWJF on this multi-funder initiative.

Scholarship Partners

The Diverse Scholars Initiative partners with nine nonprofit and civic organizations to provide scholarships to undergraduate, graduate and doctorate level students across the country.

Since 2007, United Health Foundation has provided:
$16M
to fund
2,069
scholarships