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Rezahn’s Story: Blue Shield Fellowship Helps UC Berkeley Student Pursue Career in Public Health and Environmental Science

Blue Shield of California’s five-year partnership with UC Berkeley School of Public Health supports 100 students from communities underrepresented in health care and public health.

This news story is also available in Spanish.

When Rezahn Abraha was 7 years old, her family emigrated from Japan to California. Even from an early age, Abraha recognized this big cultural shift, making her more aware of racial inequities in her new home including great disparities in educational opportunities, environmental conditions, and health outcomes between communities of color and their white counterparts. This set Abraha on a lifelong journey to advance equity in public health.

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Rezahn Abraha

As Abraha got older, she became interested in climate change and how low-income communities of color were disproportionately impacted by extreme heat and other negative environmental factors. She saw how these factors were wreaking havoc on people’s health, and this ignited her passion to do something about it. She decided to pursue an environmental sciences degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I struggled to put myself through undergrad,” said Abraha, whose family was mid- to low-income with five children. “I wanted to continue my studies on the intersection between environmental science and public health, but I couldn’t afford graduate school.”

Thanks to the Blue Shield of California Health Equity Fellowship, Abraha received a scholarship to the UC Berkeley School of Public Health to help cover tuition and some expenses for her graduate studies.

In its third year of Blue Shield of California’s five-year partnership with UC Berkeley, the fellowship has attracted a diverse cohort of graduate students who don’t have the financial resources to pursue advanced degrees. Fellows are racially and ethnically diverse, with different gender identities, sexual orientations, class backgrounds, family experiences and international origins. Sixty-three percent of fellows identify as first-generation, and 82% hail from historically marginalized communities.

During the program, fellows are placed in internships, attend workshops on public health careers and have networking opportunities with people already working in the field. Abraha’s internship was with the California Department of Public Health, which allowed her to contribute to initiatives addressing air pollution in Fresno, a community heavily impacted by environmental injustice.

The Health Equity Fellows gathered at Blue Shield of California’s Oakland headquarters, April 2024

The fellowship has also exposed Abraha to a variety of career paths, from advocacy to academia to government and industry, broadening her perspective on how to effect meaningful change. Importantly, the camaraderie among students of color in the program also provided Abraha with a sense of belonging and encouragement.

“The fellowship offered me a sense of community,” she said. “It was great to connect with other students of color and share our experiences. It helped me get through grad school.”

Jackie Ejuwa is Blue Shield of California’s vice president of Health Transformation. She leads the company’s health equity team, which oversees the Health Equity Fellowship.

“In the realm of public health, diversity isn't just a buzzword; it's a crucial element for addressing the disparities in health outcomes for communities of color,” said Ejuwa. “The diversity of the program enriches the learning environment, ensuring a broad spectrum of perspectives and lived experiences. Fellows take not only their degrees but also their lived experiences into the field, making our healthcare system more equitable through their work and career contributions.”

Abraha graduated this June and is now pursuing work in one of two directions. The first is public health community outreach, to ensure that marginalized communities have access to the resources needed to protect themselves from negative environmental factors like extreme heat and pollution. The second is research to inform policies to improve health outcomes for communities of color.

The Blue Shield of California Health Equity Fellowship at UC Berkeley will continue for another two years, empowering students like Abraha to pursue their passions and address pressing public health issues. As Abraha and her peers continue to make strides in their careers, their impact will be felt far beyond the confines of academia, creating positive change in communities across California.