Health Equity Challenge Finalist Samantha Garcia

I serendipitously ventured into the world of health education in 2014 as a sophomore at the University of Southern California (USC). As I walked through a sea of students during a campus club and student organizations fair, I was handed a flyer for the student organization Peer Health Exchange (PHE). The flyer advertised PHE as an opportunity to serve as a volunteer health educator in the surrounding USC community by teaching 9th grade students through workshops on nutrition, mental health, sexual education, and more. I was interested in a career in health and thought that working with teenagers might be fun, so I filled out an application and prepared diligently for my interview with PHE student leaders.

For the interview I was tasked with “teaching something” to showcase my teaching abilities, so I decided to teach how to make a yogurt parfait. “That’s probably something unique that will help me stand out,” I thought. I remember in preparation for the interview, I biked to a local dollar store and purchased plastic containers for all my ingredients and brought my parfait supplies the morning of my interview.

My carefully planned parfait teaching demonstration was a hit and a week later I had my much-anticipated acceptance letter into PHE. However, there was one problem — I was terrified of public speaking.

After meeting my fellow PHE health educator volunteers and going through a rigorous training process to learn my assigned workshop, it took months before I ever stepped foot into a high school classroom because of this fear. However, once I let go of my anxieties about public speaking and finally signed up to teach my first workshop, I quickly felt natural stepping into my role as a health educator.

It’s been nearly 10 years since I taught that first workshop, but I can still remember the exhilarating feeling I felt afterwards. My students were engaged, I made them laugh, and I felt like I was able to have meaningful discussions with them about my very serious workshop topic on abusive relationships.

My time as a volunteer health educator for PHE not only opened up more doors for me than I ever could have imagined, but it helped me discover my love of health education and how it can be used as a tool to empower others and build community. After serving as a volunteer health educator for PHE, I spent year after year furthering my involvement until I was leading the organization as co-coordinator my senior year of college.

My role as co-coordinator was my first student leadership position and gave me incredible insight into program management. I leveraged this skillset I gained as a leader in PHE to acquire an internship through the USC Good Neighbors Foundation Domestic Violence Healing Project, where I taught nutrition classes to mothers and children living in a domestic violence shelter. While this was an emotionally challenging experience, I was deeply touched by the families I met at this shelter, and their stories taught me how to be a more empathetic and compassionate educator.

“Through my experiences, from teaching nutrition in domestic violence shelters to collaborating on community health initiatives, I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of education in empowering individuals and communities.

My experience teaching with PHE and at the shelter led me to pursue a summer internship in 2015, where I assisted with the health education programming at St. John’s Community Health (SJCH), a federally qualified health center in South Los Angeles. Although I stepped into the organization as a 21-year-old college intern, the organization somehow trusted me after my summer with them to manage their family-centered nutrition education program, Kids N Fitness (KNF). I remained at SJCH for nearly three years teaching KNF alongside fantastic community health workers and a team from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles that was responsible for the development of KNF.

SJCH and all the families that were enrolled in KNF will always hold a special place in my heart as they all played a tremendous role in me deciding to pursue a career as a physician. It was incredibly empowering to work for an organization that merged social justice and health by viewing health care as a fundamental right and a catalyst for socioeconomic and racial justice. It was an incredible honor to practice this intersectional approach to health care through my work with KNF.

After grant funding ended for the KNF program at SJCH, I was recruited to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to teach some of their own community health education classes and assist with the research and development of their novel health education programs. Although it was a challenging learning curve, gaining insights into how health education programs are created and how to use research to measure program impact and patient outcomes was extremely invaluable.

Currently as an MD/MBA candidate at UCLA and Health Equity Challenge finalist, I find myself having a full circle moment now being able to pitch a project that somehow merges all my past experiences and interest in the medical specialty Obstetrics/Gynecology. In partnership with my mentor, Dr. Maria Paula Arias, I aim to implement a sustainable virtual group prenatal care program at the UCLA West Medical Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinic, which predominantly serves a low-income and publicly insured population. Through participating in the Health Equity Challenge, I hope to evaluate the program’s impact on patient satisfaction and obstetrical outcomes, contributing to the broader goal of improving accessibility, efficiency, and quality of prenatal care delivery.

As I craft my project proposal for the Health Equity Challenge, I find myself reflecting on the serendipitous path that led me here. From nervously teaching my first workshop as a volunteer health educator with Peer Health Exchange to helping with the development of a virtual group prenatal care program, each step has been instrumental in shaping my passion for health education and commitment to equity in health care. Through my experiences, from teaching nutrition in domestic violence shelters to collaborating on community health initiatives, I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of education in empowering individuals and communities. Now, as I assist with the implementation of a program aimed at improving accessibility and quality of prenatal care for underserved populations, I am reminded of the profound impact that education can have in driving positive change.

My journey through health education has not only equipped me with the skills and insights needed to pursue my goals as a future physician but has also instilled in me a deep sense of purpose and dedication to addressing the pressing health disparities facing our society today. As I look ahead, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities I have had and the individuals who have supported me along the way. With renewed enthusiasm and determination, I am excited to continue using education as a tool to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others and contribute to building a more equitable health care system for all.

Samantha Garcia headshot

By Samantha Garcia

2024 Health Equity Challenge Finalist
Samantha Garcia is an MD/MBA candidate at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and UCLA Anderson School of Management. She is a part of the UCLA/Charles R. Drew University Medical Education and PRIME-LA Programs, which are shaping her into a future physician leader for under-resourced communities.

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