Yamalis Diaz didn’t plan to attend college. Her parents, from Puerto Rico, hadn’t. She was academically motivated and socially active at Burlington County’s Riverside High School, but applied to Rutgers University-New Brunswick only after an English teacher made her write a personal statement and a guidance counselor helped her complete the application.
Annik Sorhaindo, conversely, knew Rutgers was in her future. Her mother and father, immigrants to the U.S. from the Caribbean islands of Dominica and St. Lucia, respectively, came to live in Franklin Township, Somerset County. Her dad, who initially came here on a college scholarship, had two master’s degrees, her mother attended nursing school and Annik was enrolled in several honor classes at Franklin High School.
From different backgrounds, the young women still had something in common: trouble adjusting to college life. Now, in the midst of successful careers, they know their lives probably would be decidedly different if it weren’t for Project L/EARN, which celebrated its 25th year in May 2016 as one of Rutgers-New Brunswick’s seminal pipeline programs. Both alumnae participated on a mentoring and career networking panel during the recent conference.
The goal of Project L/EARN is to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups or disadvantaged communities in the fields of health, mental health, public health and health policy research, thereby expanding the breadth of health research to include a broader range of ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic issues, concerns and perspectives.
Housed within the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research (IHHCPAR), the project features a rigorous, paid 10-week in-residence summer session, and teams interns with program alumni and faculty mentors who teach life, study and graduate-level researching skills. Project L/EARN has prepared 205 undergraduates for graduate school and careers in health and social science professions.
Promising applicants – not all from Rutgers – are chosen following interviews with faculty, who mentor them as research assistants through the summer and often the following academic year. Majors run the gamut, from the social and biological sciences to prehealth professions to foreign languages. As of July 2016, L/EARN alumni had undertaken or completed 77 doctoral degrees and 120 master’s degrees. Nine had participated in postdoctoral fellowships.
Professor Jane Miller, Project L/EARN’s faculty director, says “L/EARN is one of the few programs that recognizes the importance of three types of capital – human, social and cultural capital.” Human capital includes the statistical and writing skills to conduct or apply research, while social capital means connecting students to networks of researchers, educators and professionals for support. Cultural capital imparts an understanding of what it means to be a researcher and team member. All three contribute importantly to the project’s success, Miller says.
Diaz (L/EARN ’99), earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2000. She served as a research assistant at Rutgers’ Center for State Health Policy before pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Maryland, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, one of the top children’s hospitals in the country. She is a clinical assistant professor of childhood and adolescent psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and a licensed clinical psychologist at the NYU Child Center, where she specializes in working with children with ADHD and other disruptive behaviors, and their parents.It’s hard for Diaz to talk about her Project L/EARN experience without becoming emotional. “After high school, it was a tough transition to Rutgers. It was my first time away from home,” she recalls. “I tried for the same balance I had in high school, but my early academics suggested I wouldn’t do too much after college.”
School of Social Work Professor and mentor Kathleen Pottick, for whom Diaz later conducted research, reviewed the sophomore’s application. Her cumulative GPA was somewhat lower than most competitive research programs would be willing to consider. “She was young, but her application letter appealed to me. So forthright,” Pottick said.
“We met and I was impressed she had read my work, but I didn’t buy that ‘first time away from home’ line. I said she must start working harder. She had a mediocre GPA, but she had gotten an A in sociology as a second-semester sophomore. I knew she could do it if she applied herself.”
Together they attended the prestigious Tampa Conference for children’s mental health research, where Diaz presented their paper on how insurance and facility ownership affect psychiatric inpatient stays of seriously emotionally disturbed children. “I overheard two conferees from the National Institutes of Health remark how polished Yamalis was,” Pottick proudly remembers. “They couldn’t believe she was an undergraduate.”
Like Diaz, Sorhaindo’s start at Rutgers was rocky. “I was on a premed track, but wasn’t enjoying it,” the 1997 L/EARN alumna said. “The classes were huge. I felt I was drowning in a sea of people and was pretty depressed and unhappy. Then I switched to public health at the end of my sophomore year and loved the small classes and accessible faculty.
Sorhaindo understood what research was and that it was a potential career path. “It wasn’t new to me,” she said. Project L/EARN took her to the next level: to effectively use research methods, including databases and statistics, and deliver presentations for an academic and research audience. “I didn’t understand the importance of what I was doing until afterward,” she said, “when I started working for an NGO [nongovernmental organization]. I was able to participate in projects and take on roles, such as conducting statistical analyses – skills that were considered advanced for an undergraduate.”
Miller, Sorhaindo’s adviser at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, helped launch her career. Miller’s contact at the Population Council in New York led to an internship, and following graduation, a position in Mexico, where she learned to speak Spanish. There, she was part of the research team taking on projects in reproductive and sexual health in Latin America and the Caribbean. She led to two research projects – one quantitative and one qualitative – in Jamaica.
Then, Sorhaindo moved to London, earning her master’s in reproductive and sexual health and later, as a member of the research staff, began her doctorate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), a top school for public health in Europe. As staff at LSHTM, she conducted research, tutored public health graduate students and taught master’s-level courses in health promotion and sexual health.
In 2011, Sorhaindo returned to Mexico City as a senior researcher at the Population Council. Now, she continues to work from Mexico, but as an independent consultant, performing abortion-related research for the World Health Organization, and preparing to defend her doctoral dissertation at the LSHTM.
“Jane helped build my confidence,” Sorhaindo said. “Students from underrepresented groups often don’t feel a sense of community and think they don’t have much to offer. Besides teaching great technical skills, Project L/EARN gives you a sense that you matter.
“Jane invested social capital in me. She had the resources and connections and introduced me to the Population Council. I went to Mexico City for two months and stayed two years. By 25, I was first author on two papers. It was an amazing experience.”
Now in positions at an elite research university and international health agency, Diaz and Sorhaindo “pay it forward” to others from underrepresented groups who, like them, seek to learn the ropes to prepare them for careers in health research and practice.
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