By Claire De Lisle, William & Mary University Advancement
In March, with the pandemic picking up steam worldwide and graduation just around the corner, Dena Bashri was looking for her next step. A public health major with minors in math and Arabic, Bashri, a recent graduate of Sullivan Foundation partner school William & Mary, knew she wanted to put her education to good use, but how? And what opportunities would even be available during this economic downturn, when so many organizations have frozen hiring or are conducting all their business remotely?
Her first step: reaching out to the network of W&M alumni to learn more about possible career paths. That’s how she found out about the Transforming Primary Care fellowship offered this summer by the Weitzman Institute, the research and innovation arm of Community Health Center, Inc.
This summer, she and fellow W&M alumna Shivani Gupta are two of the six inaugural fellows in this program, which is entirely remote. They are working on projects as diverse as ensuring the homeless have access to telehealth and tracking the supply chain of COVID-19 testing kits.
“The inaugural Transforming Primary Care Summer Fellowship was offered nationally to graduates from the class of 2020, students who are going through the unique challenges brought by COVID-19 as they launch their careers,” said Mark Masselli, CEO and founder, in a press release. “We received an outpouring of excellent candidates and are fortunate to have a group of truly outstanding future healthcare leaders. The Fellows have brought limitless talent, energy and intellectual curiosity to their work at CHC and the Weitzman Institute.”
Bashri has always been interested in the intersections of health and migration. Growing up, she traveled with her family to Sudan every few years to see relatives and was fascinated by the ways in which displacement and conflict created a complex, diverse culture there. As a student at William & Mary, she studied abroad in Jordan to conduct research on the perceptions of the domestic worker sponsorship system among domestic workers and their employers.
“I understand that my life would be super-different if my family hadn’t been able to benefit from systems of migration,” she said. “For me, what’s really powerful is to be able to leverage my privilege to serve a greater cause in communities that reflect my own identity, an identity I didn’t see reflected much growing up or even at William & Mary.”
“As a black Muslim woman, it’s important to recognize that facets of my intersectional identity don’t hinder me,” Bashri added. “They help me gain a greater sense of empathy for others and connect with more people than I could have ever imagined.”
She sees her work in the fellowship as a way to make an impact on a community level. For her fellowship with CHC/Weitzman, Bashri joined their Center for Key Populations, which engages and advocates for populations who have traditionally experienced barriers to care, including homeless and LGBTQ+- identifying individuals, along with those living with substance-use disorders and hepatitis C.
Her projects this summer included helping homeless and displaced people connect to telehealth and creating a nurse-driven protocol for taking sexual histories that are more inclusive for all people, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. She also contributed to a presentation on health disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic for the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants.
Her work combines literature reviews, background research and interviews—qualitative and quantitative research like she conducted at William & Mary as part of the Ignite Lab and Research and Evaluation unit of AidData.
“There are these open doors at William & Mary to conduct research as an undergrad and explore your interests. I don’t know if I would have had that anywhere else, that depth of knowledge, mentorship and experience,” she said. “I was comfortable and confident pursuing research opportunities like this one post-grad.”
In the future, she hopes to keep contributing to meaningful work at CHC or travel abroad to continue her work with underserved populations. She’s applying for a Fulbright scholarship to research Sweden as a case study of global response to the refugee crisis.
“In order to truly engage in meaningful work in a global context, you must be able to recognize and understand these same complex topics on a local scale,” Bashri says. “It’s more than just asking, ‘How can I help?’ It’s really about immersing yourself in holistic learning about the experiences and identities that form communities you are serving.”
Gupta was also looking a remote opportunity to make a meaningful difference and was excited to learn about the fellowship. A public policy major with a global education minor, she had been in India on a Boren Scholarship all year but was called back to the U.S. in March as travel-related restrictions due to the pandemic began. Boren Scholarships, an initiative of the National Security Education Program, provide unique funding opportunities for U.S. undergraduates to study less commonly taught languages in world regions that are critical to U.S. interests and underrepresented in study-abroad programs.
As part of the fellowship, Gupta is building a database that matches CHC/Weitzman’s priorities to their grants and helping manage their complex supply chain of COVID-related supplies.
“William & Mary encourages us to try to make an impact wherever we go, in small and big ways, and to think critically,” Gupta said. “My organizational behavior class especially gave me the confidence to offer up my ideas in this fellowship about how to improve workflow and be more efficient.”
As well as her fellowship, Gupta works for a social enterprise startup called Hope Sews that provides opportunities to seamstresses in Ghana. She is also interning with William & Mary’s Global Research Institute on a project for the Department of Defense’s U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, looking at the impacts of COVID-19 on women in the Pacific region.
“I definitely think it’s helpful at this time to stay busy, so it’s been really nice to have these opportunities. And they’re all things that I’m passionate about and interested in,” she said. “Coming back home, it’s been good to engage with the community in these collaborative opportunities.”
Gupta was encouraged to come to William & Mary by her AP Government teacher in high school, W&M alumna Allison White Cohen. “I started off thinking maybe I should major in government, but I learned I liked more of the community-driven aspects, seeing the impact on a local level,” she said. “So I switched to public policy, which led to work with the Office of Community Engagement, studying abroad in India and the work I’m doing now. This is a really interdisciplinary and unique major that you can really take in the direction that you want.”
Next, Gupta plans to work in the federal government for at least a year to fulfill the terms of her Boren Scholarship. She hopes to land a communications position focused on international development, education and health care.
“I’d like to combine my interest in policy and sustainable development to pursue, like, a social enterprise,” she says. “I think I could continue to make change that way.”
Shivani Gupta (left) and her roommate, Mina Parastaran, celebrate graduation at William & Mary. (Photo by Dani Aron-Schiavone)
This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the William & Mary website.