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It was January 2021, nearly one year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was in the middle of the second academic year of my PhD program. Much of my time this academic year, unfortunately, was spent alone, in an office, working on a computer (most of this work environment I attribute to COVID-19). While I was immersed in the PhD student experience, I found the day-to-day life following that of a typical PhD student which included: collecting and analyzing data, creating measures and interview/focus group guides, writing, funding acquisition, course work (sometimes an afterthought), overseeing undergraduate and masters students, preparing for comprehensive exams, and beginning to think about a dissertation. During this time, I was, and still am, supported by my advisor, other mentors at Purdue, and other places. I was constantly in communication with people on the research projects that I was coordinating or a member of via email, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx—did I mention all of the virtual platforms? This was a new wave of constant contact that I had not experienced, and I was expected, as were many of us, to dive or lean in, adjust, and keep working to be productive. I knew that all of these research-related activities and meetings were contributing to my learning and skills development as a researcher, but I found myself losing “my why”. I remember writing about my why in the personal statement that was part of my application materials to the PhD program at Purdue. I spent extensive time and thought explaining or writing to the admissions committee what motivated me to conduct and engage in research within higher education. What my why boiled down to was connecting with and learning from and/or alongside others. However, amidst the virtual platforms and, dare I say, phony and inauthentic connections I was attempting to make in my second year, I couldn’t find the connection to the work and life that I was seeking; I lost my why. This blog post intends to take readers, for those interested in reading the story, through my background. I started as someone interested in youth development and adolescent wellbeing and became someone who was losing their way, and ultimately finding new opportunities through meaningful and authentic connections with Purdue University Center for Health Equity and Innovation (CHEqI). 

Before my arrival at Purdue University to pursue a PhD in Public Health, I spent four years in Columbus, OH which was a truly transformative time in my life. I was learning, working a variety of odd jobs, discovering and making connections with others, and trying to engage in work that I found meaningful. After graduating from Miami University in 2015—riding on the coattails of someone else which ended rather quickly after moving—I found myself in Columbus. I quickly realized I needed to find my way around and navigate a big, new city. I began working as a sales associate at Nordstrom and even though the days were long, I was able to make friends with my co-workers, learned how to interact with customers, put myself in un-comfy situations at times like trying to sell customers credit cards (never again!), and pay my rent, bills, and student loans. While this work was fun, I wanted more. After just a month in Columbus, I began working part-time as a program leader for After-School All-Stars. I was offered a program leader position where I would work part-time Monday-Thursday at a Columbus City Middle School from 2pm-6pm implementing physical activity, academic, and enrichment programming. Outside of programming hours, I began to take on additional tasks such as curriculum development and other administrative tasks that got me promoted to assistant site manager. At After-School All-Stars I worked at the same school for an entire school year and made significant and lasting connections with the middle schoolers who were a part of the program as well as some of my co-workers. This truly sparked my interest in adolescent wellbeing as I began to observe what the kiddos were interested in and not interested in and why this was the case. I also quickly realized how much fun it was to work with middle schoolers each day! This newfound interest led me to connect with a professor at The Ohio State University (OSU) who founded The Learning in Fitness and Education through Sports (LiFEsports) initiative which seeks to provide quality sports-based positive youth development programming, especially for those youth who are from communities that are under-resourced. I began working as a part-time research and program assistant for this initiative where I got my first taste of what research and evaluation were while also getting the chance to interact with youth in a sports and community setting while assisting with program implementation. After a year of working at LiFEsports, many other different jobs, and getting much-needed life experience, I was encouraged to apply to the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at OSU. After starting the MSW in the fall of 2016 I fully immersed myself in LiFEsports. During the two-year MSW program, I was taking coursework in social work that focused on macro children/youth and community topics to improve the health and wellbeing of kids while also writing LiFEsports curriculum, planning and implementing sports, and helping out with a college and career readiness program for LiFEsports participants. With the support of my MSW advisor I was able to conduct a very interactive thesis by interviewing girl participants of the LiFEsports summer camp (I was assigned to be their counselor) to learn more about their experiences at camp and how, if at all, those experiences contributed to their overall health and wellbeing. I came to realize that I was living out my why in the first year and the subsequent two years as an MSW student. I was connecting with others and working with and alongside them while also learning from youth to improve their experiences and health outcomes in youth development programs.  

After graduating with an MSW I knew I wanted to take another break from school and get additional experience  by working with others in a new environment. During the second year of my MSW program I picked up a second job serving at a local Italian restaurant, and I decided to continue serving full-time while looking into PhD programs. I wanted to further my education and work in the academic space because I felt this environment would best serve my why. To remain connected to my why during a second gap year, I started a part-time job at OSU Student-Athlete Support Services Offices (SASSO) as an academic student-athlete tutor. In this role, I worked one-on-one with student-athletes who were deemed “at-risk” and seeking out and/or required to receive additional academic support to remain eligible in their sport. This experience provided me the opportunity to work with older youth/students in a different capacity while still building connections and relationships and learning from and alongside others. Overall, my time in Columbus was pivotal to my learning and development and it was where I was able to build and connect to my why.  

I return now to January 2021 and the lost graduate student who couldn’t find her why in the weeds of graduate student life amid the aftermath of a lockdown and the continuation of COVID-19. Then I met the director of CHEqI (Dr. Jasmine Gonzalvo). I got introduced to Jasmine while I was a graduate research assistant on a project with the Purdue University Community Health Workforce Development Institute (CHWDI) of which Jasmine was a member, and still is. To this day I’m not sure how Jasmine knew of my background (but one of her many talents is connection and connecting people to initiatives). But she and I were on a zoom call before the other team members joined and Jasmine asked if I was interested in joining a project that CHEqI was doing with Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS). I remember her saying, “You like working with kids, right?” Yearning for connection and finding my why again, with enthusiasm I instantly said, “Yes!” 

Beginning in February 2021 I joined the CHEqI-PPHS partnership initiative. From March to the end of April of that year I was a mentor and collaborative team member, where I virtually attended two classes a week as part of a PPHS course where students worked in small groups to enhance wellbeing at their school. At the beginning of the class, PPHS students interviewed teachers, staff, and peers to better understand how the PPHS community perceives wellbeing. Students also sought outside community collaborators who could provide further insight and additional information. After acquiring this initial feedback, the Purdue students helped guide PPHS students to access relevant wellbeing community resources, identify already published information and data to enhance problem statements, and provide feedback on student presentations to create solutions to improve wellbeing at PPHS and in the community. While the PPHS students led all aspects of the concept development, myself and the other two Purdue students assisted by identifying a social issue, conducting initial and informational interviews, planning the project, and proposing strategies for information dissemination. Culminating the course, PPHS student groups presented their ideas to enhance wellbeing at their school to PPHS faculty and leaders of CHEqI. I was highly impressed by the students’ creativity, adaptability, and curiosity, and enjoyed having the opportunity to learn alongside the high school students!  

Because of the excitement and confidence in the potential impact of these ideas, PPHS faculty helped promote the early adoption of these ideas by piloting several wellbeing enhancing initiatives. One wellbeing idea included: 1) introducing a wellbeing break during their lunch hour whereby students receive an additional 30 minutes to participate in yoga, 2) taking walks around their neighborhood/community, and 3) utilizing and playing with sports equipment. The second proposed idea by students introduced a healthy snacks cart that would be available to PPHS throughout the day and provide students with healthy snack alternatives to what is typically available in vending machines. The final idea created by students was taking longer breaks between classes; students proposed 15 minutes in-between classes compared to the existing 10 minutes to allow students to go outside, have more time to prepare for their next class, or socialize with friends.  

Building on the momentum created by this wellbeing course, CHEqI continued the work around wellbeing at PPHS. Specifically, CHEqI partnered with Nine13sports, a health and fitness nonprofit in Indianapolis that provides disadvantaged youth the opportunity to engage with bicycles. In May 202, Nine13sports came to PPHS for two days to offer their Kids Riding Bikes program that utilizes indoor stationary bike simulators. During these two days, over 60 PPHS students rode a bike simulator. During their experiences, students were able to warm up, compete against each other, build teamwork, and learn more about the mechanics and exercise components of riding a bike. 

I soon found myself becoming and feeling like an integral part of the CHEqI-PPHS partnership. And even better, I was enjoying the work and felt highly motivated to engage and continue the work. Being in sync, as we usually are, Jasmine and I quickly realized this, and with the support of Jasmine and my research mentor I was able to begin a graduate research assistantship with CHEqI. I’m not sure Jasmine or other CHEqI leaders truly know how much this assistantship changed my experience at Purdue. I felt like I was finding my why again. The weeds began to clear and I started to see the garden that I had begun planting and nurturing in Columbus, OH. The work I was engaging in was having a positive impact and we were leading from experience and impact instead of research.  

The Summer of 2021 is when the CHEqI-PPHS partnership began to take off. With Jasmine’s support, I worked to establish a formal partnership with PPHS and identify the next steps. Specifically, a university-school-community partnership was formed in collaboration with CHEqI and PPHS. Individually, CHEqI addresses the needs of populations that are underserved through innovative strategies. Founded by Purdue University and the city of Indianapolis with three high school campuses in the state of Indiana, PPHS is a unique STEM-based public charter school that provides opportunities to youth who are from communities that are underrepresented and underserved by conducting research and creating solutions that make a positive impact. Together, through the university-school-community partnership, CHEqI and PPHS seek to build the capacity to positively impact the health and wellbeing of PPHS students, staff, and the surrounding community. 

Due to the generous support from the McKinley Educational Initiative, the University-School-Community partnership was able to build on these previous school-based health and wellbeing initiatives and pilot a more sustainable and holistic opportunity. Beginning Fall 2021 this partnership planned and developed a 6-week Health Immersion Program that was offered to PPHS Englewood students during April and May of 2022. Through collaborations with Indianapolis-based organizations, health and wellbeing activities were offered to PPHS Englewood students that focused on physical activity, nutrition, and mindfulness. Offered as a regular class for 4 days a week spanning 6 weeks a total of 20 students enrolled in the course and were able to meet their 2-credit physical activity school requirement.  

During the program, students engaged in both indoor and outdoor cycling opportunities two days a week that included bike rides, bike simulators, and education about bike safety, maintenance, and knowledge. One day a week students worked alongside a Purdue University Marion County Extension educator to learn about nutritious foods, safe food preparation, and handling, and even how to prepare yummy breakfast burritos! For the final component of the program, a certified yoga and mindfulness instructor came to the class once a week and facilitated guided breathing and stretching exercises. 

As a result of the university-school-community partnership, PPHS was recently awarded $500,000 from the Indiana Department of Health (IDOH) as part of the Issues and Challenges grant monies. CHEqI will be working with PPHS to evaluate the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) whole school, whole child, and whole community (WSCC) model as well as continue to develop and implement initiatives to enhance the health and wellbeing of the PPHS students and community. Another newly established partnership within this university-school-community collaboration is with Purdue University College of Nursing. Specifically, nursing students are working directly with PPHS nurses to obtain public health clinical hours by assisting with individualized health plans, vaccinations, and health education. 

Future university-school-community partnership initiatives include planning for the next Immersion program for PPHS Englewood students, which is already underway and will take place in April-May 2023. This program, although similar to the previous one, will be tailored and modified based on the student and partner feedback and outcomes of the Spring 2022 program. This collaboration is also seeking funding to hire a Community Health Worker (CHW) to pilot the implementation of a school-based CHW at PPHS. As CHWs are trusted members of the communities in which they serve they can help to acquire and connect PPHS students and their families that need health and social services. Specifically, the CHW will conduct screenings to assess assets and risks to better understand individual needs to improve their healthcare and access to it. This pilot will also explore the opportunity to establish a broader healthcare access strategy with large health systems for students, family members, and staff as well as work to build a health and wellbeing team at PPHS. This team will consist of health professionals (e.g., CHW, nurse, social worker, etc.) to better meet health needs.  

The opportunities with CHEqI that lead the PPHS partnership arm of CHEqI has re-ignited my why for a PhD and beyond. Through interactions with the CHEqI team I was able to establish connections and conduct work that was meaningful for me and impactful to individuals and communities. Additionally, I built, and continue to build, relationships with PPHS leadership and other community partners who share a vision for adolescent wellbeing. While I do not think I can express fully the opportunities that CHEqI has provided, and how grateful I am for connecting with Jasmine, the CHEqI director, I do know that I will be supported and mentored in all my endeavors. The experience provides the right amounts of autonomy, guidance, and freedom within my work at this Center. Upon reflection, my why has become rooted in CHEqI in that I hope to continue to make meaningful partnerships and relationships to address health inequities among adolescents and their surrounding communities. For helping me rediscover my why, I am ever appreciative to Jasmine and CHEqI.