How a public health student works with community schools to meet families’ food, medical needs
Emma Shen uses internship to help local residents in their own neighborhoods
When Emma Shen is assessing the health and well-being of families, it doesn’t happen in a doctor’s office.
It happens alongside parents in their children’s schools, or with families in need at a local food pantry.
Shen, a 23-year-old Binghamton University Master of Public Health (MPH) student, believes the best way to help others is by doing the work in their own neighborhoods.
Exploring ways to break down barriers in providing that essential assistance is a cornerstone of Shen’s internship with Binghamton University Community Schools (BUCS). In addition, she has divided her time working in a food pantry under the United Way of Broome County’s Healthy Lifestyles Coalition at the Lee Barta Community Center in the North Side of Binghamton as part of her service with AmeriCorps, to engage with residents directly about their needs.
“I’m really about meeting people where they’re at and bringing resources to the community where it will serve them best,” said Shen, a New York City native who earned an integrated neuroscience bachelor’s degree at Binghamton before pursuing her MPH. “I knew, just by earning my degree during the pandemic, that I wanted to help communities on a population level, as opposed to more primary care. A huge part of public health is advocating for what is right, looking at what’s in the community and finding ways to bring equity.”
Luann Kida, executive director of BUCS in the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA), said Shen developed a keen understanding of how the community school model could align with her public health training.
“Disease and lack of healthy lifestyle choices such as fresh fruits/vegetables, areas for movement and exercise, and safe streets all impact the well-being of the community, which in turn impacts school attendance and academic outcomes,” Kida said.
Shen’s internship began in the fall and continues into the 2023 spring semester. Her research involved delving into data provided through a partnership between BUCS and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield designed to identify some of the highest-need areas of Broome County by ZIP code.
“What Excellus did is assess the Broome County population to find out how many of their clientele are getting their well child visits, their annual dental visits, as opposed to clients who aren’t compliant,” Shen said. “Then they broke down who makes up the non-compliant members, what are their age groups and what ZIP codes they’re in and what type of health insurance do they have?”
Kida said Shen was able to examine the data from a unique perspective, not only looking for health outcomes, but the “why” behind them. Working closely with Kida, she asked Excellus clarifying questions to understand how they were using the data and aligned their analysis, BUCS’ goals and her own research. That aided a plan of action for Shen’s continued work in the spring semester.
After analyzing the data, the second half of Shen’s internship will involve setting up BUCS “parent cafes” — safe spaces that make it easier for parents or caregivers to talk about challenges, strategies and successes — in local schools to guide solutions.
“We’ll rely a lot on the community school coordinators because they have that connection and strong relationships with the parents,” Shen said, “so we can come together to find out what the barriers are or what resources might be lacking.”
While at the food pantry in the Lee Barta Community Center, Shen has kept busy performing inventory and assisting with other programs held there. Among them, cooking classes offered through a partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County.
“On the research side, I’m looking into barriers for kids and families and here on my days at the food pantry, I’m on the ground talking with residents to hear their needs directly,” Shen said. “Opportunities for community engagement like these are essential when it comes to public health.”
Kida concluded, “Connecting Emma’s MPH internship requirements to BUCS’ University-assisted community school work is just the beginning of what we hope to be a strengthening partnership that provides valuable educational experience for Binghamton University students while supporting our local school partners and the communities they serve.”