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    • The 2021 cohort of Tougaloo Scholars included, L. to R.: Desiree-Gift Mills, Alitzel Serrano, Alexandria Morgan, Xhana Thompson, and Zechariah Davis. Not pictured; Nakyah Hill.

A Winning Partnership

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“ Everyone was so supportive and compassionate. And having someone who has continued to advise me as I get ready to take the next steps in my life means so much.”
— Xhana Thompson

XHANA THOMPSON SAYS SHE KNEW LITTLE ABOUT PUBLIC HEALTH when one of her professors at Tougaloo College informed her of an opportunity to participate in a new summer program offered by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in partnership with Tougaloo, a historically Black liberal arts institution in Jackson, Mississippi.

“I thought public health was more for biology students, and I’m most interested in the social sciences,” says Thompson, a psychology major with designs on working with children from marginalized communities as a licensed clinical social worker.

Seeking to expand her horizons, Thompson applied and was accepted to the UCLA-Tougaloo Public Health Scholars Training Program for the summer following her junior year. By the end of her experience, she had a new understanding and appreciation for the field. “I learned that public health is really about making sure the overall population is OK,” she says. “It’s looking at the big picture and addressing problems that affect people’s mental and physical health.”

But for Thompson, the impact of the experience went well beyond the subject matter.

In May, the Tougaloo Scholars came to California for a threeday visit during which they met with UCLA Fielding School faculty and graduate student mentors, connected with program staff, and toured and learned about PhD programs offered at UCLA, UC Irvine, and UC San Diego.

She and the five other Tougaloo Scholars in her cohort were each paired with a UCLA Fielding faculty member to develop their research skills and receive individual mentorship. In Thompson’s case, her mentor was Dr. Courtney Thomas Tobin, assistant professor in FSPH’s Department of Community Health Sciences and a faculty associate at UCLA’s Bunche Center for African American Studies. In addition to assisting Thomas Tobin on her research, which focuses on the impact of race-based stress and coping experiences on psychological and physiological health in the U.S. Black population, Thompson learned the process of conducting her own peer-reviewed studies, from literature reviews and statistical analyses to writing an abstract for a scientific meeting. To give Thompson a better sense of the graduate school experience, Thomas Tobin connected her with the FSPH graduate students on her research team. And, in the course of their regular meetings, Thomas Tobin provided Thompson with both counsel and inspiration.

“To have a mentor who not only had similar interests, but also looked like me as a Black woman helped me to see what’s possible,” Thompson says. “The fact that Dr. Thomas Tobin cared so much and took the time to work with me was amazing.”

Thomas Tobin relished the opportunity to develop long-term mentoring relationships with students like Thompson as a way to help expand the pipeline of individuals from historically underrepresented communities into graduate school and public health. It was also a chance to pay it forward: As an undergraduate at Xavier University in Louisiana — which, along with Tougaloo, is one of more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) identified by the U.S. Department of Education — Thomas Tobin attended a similar program offered at UCLA. “That’s how I learned about research, and it led me to apply to graduate school and go straight into a PhD program,” she says. “Giving undergraduates early exposure to public health and the possibilities available to them is so important.”

As part of the UC-HBCU Initiative, which seeks to improve diversity and strengthen graduate programs in the University of California system by investing in relationships between UC faculty and HBCUs, the UCLA-Tougaloo Public Health Scholars Training Program provides paid training and research placement sites for six Tougaloo College undergraduates each summer for three years. UC-HBCU Initiative participants who apply to any of UC’s 700 graduate programs have their application fees waived, and admitted PhD applicants receive tuition, fees, and stipend/salary support.

“Giving undergraduates early exposure to public health and the possibilities available to them is so important.”
— Dr. Courtney Thomas Tobin

Dr. Michael Prelip (MPH ’85), professor and chair of UCLA Fielding’s Department of Community Health Sciences, and principal investigator of the UCLA-Tougaloo program, explains that the program presented an ideal fit for the school, which already had the infrastructure for such a program in place through the Public Health Scholars Program, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, in which undergraduates explore public health through hands-on training, structured workshops, group events, volunteer opportunities, and leadership and professional development. The UC-HBCU Initiative provided the opportunity to further enrich the experience of the Public Health Scholars while introducing 18 Tougaloo students to the field of public health and the potential for fully funded PhD-level training.

“Having well-funded, well-structured programs that remove financial barriers and bring in students from diverse backgrounds is critical — for both reducing disparities and opening up more opportunities for young people, as well as to benefit the field of public health,” Prelip says. “The students in these pathway programs bring their own personal narratives, aspirations, and expertise in how public health is applied in their worlds, and for us to have that exposure only strengthens our school.”

The UCLA-Tougaloo program has also benefited from the active partnership of Tougaloo College, which has produced many of Mississippi’s leading Black professionals across disciplines. “We know that partnerships such as these change the trajectory and outcomes of our students,” says Dr. Carmen Walters, Tougaloo College’s president. “Our committed and passionate faculty are preparing our scholars here, but learning about health disparities and other issues at a place like the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and using that knowledge to impact communities positively is a priceless opportunity. We hope this partnership will only grow, and that at some point, we can bring UCLA scholars here for an experience at a historically Black college that they wouldn’t have in California.”

The Tougaloo Scholars participate fully in the Public Health Scholars Program, attending lectures and facilitated discussions on public health topics. Together with the Public Health Scholars, they break into health equity groups based on their interest areas, with each group responsible for identifying and framing their public health issue and presenting on it to the other students, as well as leading moderated discussions based on readings they assign to their peers. The Tougaloo Scholars are also actively engaged in professional development activities, including workshops on resume writing, networking, and writing personal statements.

To develop their research skills, the scholars are paired with a faculty member — along with Thomas Tobin, faculty working with the first cohort included Drs. Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez and May Sudhinaraset from FSPH’s Department of Community Health Sciences; Dr. Brian Cole from the Department of Environmental Health Sciences; Dr. Roch Nianogo from the Department of Epidemiology; and Dr. Kia Skrine Jeffers from the UCLA School of Nursing, who is an associate director of FSPH’s Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health.

Alitzel Serrano, one of the Tougaloo Scholars, was mentored by Dr. Hiram Beltran-Sanchez, FSPH associate professor of community health sciences.

For Lindsay Rice, who as UCLA Fielding’s director of pathway programs manages both the UCLA-Tougaloo and Public Health Scholars programs, just as important as the content learned by the student scholars is the support and mentorship they receive from the faculty and staff, both during and after their summer experience. “We work hard to build a sense of community, and are committed to having ongoing relationships with these students,” Rice says. “When you’re from another part of the country and you have people rooting for you and helping you, it can make graduate school feel much more obtainable.”

Alitzel Serrano traces her interest in public health to her participation in Tougaloo College’s Undergraduate Training and Education Center for the Jackson Heart Study, a National Institutes of Health-funded effort involving Tougaloo, Jackson State University, the Mississippi State Department of Health, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Public health’s commitment to reducing health disparities appealed to Serrano, a mathematics major and first-generation college

“As a professor, I feel a strong commitment and responsibility in the formation of a diverse group of researchers.”
— Dr. Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez

student who hopes to use her education to improve the health of Latino communities. As a UCLA-Tougaloo Scholar, Serrano learned to appreciate public health issues such as the growing unhoused population, the impact of the built environment, and mass incarceration, the topic on which her health equity group presented. “I learned so much, and interacting with the people in the cohort, it was eye-opening to see others who are so passionate about public health,” she says.

For her research training Serrano was paired with Beltrán-Sánchez, who encouraged her to select her own study topic. Serrano chose to investigate metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions (high levels of blood sugar, triglycerides and blood pressure; low HDL cholesterol; and large waist circumference) in the Mexican American population. Under Beltrán-Sánchez’s guidance, she examined data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to learn more about the importance of risk factors in the population. Serrano continued working with Beltrán-Sánchez on the project after returning to Tougaloo for her senior year, and Beltrán-Sánchez provided support as she began applying to graduate school programs in epidemiology and biostatistics. “He told me that once I got offers, he would help me decide what was best for me, which I really appreciated,” Serrano says.

Beltrán-Sánchez, like Thomas Tobin, was part of a similar program as an undergraduate that matched students with faculty for research; that experience, he says, was fundamental to his decision to pursue a career as an academic researcher. Beltrán-Sánchez hopes his participation as a faculty member in the UCLA-Tougaloo program has the same impact on Serrano. “As a professor, I feel a strong commitment and responsibility in the formation of a diverse group of researchers,” he says. “Alitzel represents a student who has faced many barriers and disadvantages in her studies, and I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with her on research.”

Xhana Thompson has remained in close contact with Thomas Tobin as she considers her future, which could ultimately include following her mentor’s path toward a PhD. “I had such a phenomenal experience,” she says. “It didn’t feel like the typical summer program, in that everyone was so supportive and compassionate. And having someone who has continued to advise me as I get ready to take the next steps in my life means so much.”