When University of California graduate student Mikaela Zamarron was growing up in Detroit, the city was struggling financially and declared bankruptcy in 2013. There were numerous structural problems, including historical disinvestment in neighborhoods that were once redlined for being “hazardous” because people of color lived in them.
The result was that there were no major grocery stores in Zamarron’s neighborhood. Though she had small, Mexican grocers nearby which carried some fresh fruits and vegetables, many of her classmates only had access to food sold at gas stations, liquor stores, and convenience shops. Most people she knew had to travel to the surrounding suburbs for fresh produce.
“I brought that first-hand experience with me to college,” said Zamarron. “It inspired me to get into food education and eventually pursue a graduate degree in public health to make an impact on people who live in food deserts and food swamps.”
Zamarron is part of the first cohort of 27 students in the Blue Shield of California Fellowship Program launched this past August. The new program at UC Berkeley School of Public Health aims to increase diversity among health professionals, improve public health, and advance health equity. Over the next five years, Blue Shield will support approximately 100 master’s and doctoral students, including those from communities underrepresented in the healthcare industry.
“We know that in order to transform our healthcare system and achieve health equity, we must invest in growing diverse, top talent through collaborations with educators, industry leaders, and policymakers,” said Jackie Ejuwa, vice president of Health Transformation at Blue Shield of California. “We look forward to continuing to nurture and support the next generation of healthcare leaders though our Fellows program.”
Blue Shield not only provides fellows with scholarships but also with professional experiences, including internships, networking and career development. The company anticipates hiring many of the fellows upon graduation. With Blue Shield’s five-year investment in the fellowship program, the result will be a pipeline of diverse healthcare leaders entering the workforce.
For Zamarron, the fellowship has provided a sense of community and sharpened her vision: “There are so many different people from different concentrations which have helped me to understand the many ways racist ideologies impact public health. I want to ensure that people don’t have to worry about food. When you can feed yourself and your family, you can live a better life overall and can better handle all the other systemic injustices.”