Training Community Health Leaders of Tomorrow

Austin undergraduate students collaborate with faculty and staff at the Dell Medical School to transform health care

Reviewed by: Hadis Askari; Amanda Cantú, MSSW; Nathan Ngo; Rhea Sachdeva; Steve Steffensen, MD; and Soumya Thotakura
Written by: Lauren Schneider

Two young women in blue scrubs listening attentively and taking notes while seated at a table.

From the time she first set foot on campus, Soumya Thotakura, a junior biology major at The University of Texas at Austin, knew she wanted to become a physician. In hopes of gaining more real-world experience in health care, she applied for Dell Medical School’s Health Leadership Apprentice (HLA) Program during her freshman year at the urging of an upperclassman who described the program as a “gold mine” of professional community health opportunities.

That fall, she teamed up with fellow UT Austin students Cheyenne Ahamed, Hadis Askari, Nathan Ngo, and Rhea Sachdeva to help improve access to and increase awareness of the Medical Access Program (MAP), a Central Health initiative offering health coverage to low-income Travis County residents without health insurance.

“Through our focus on the low-income and homeless populations, I learned about the unique challenges these groups face in navigating the healthcare system,” says Soumya. “As a pre-med student, this insight into the patient perspective has been invaluable and will help inform future patient care.”

Care Beyond the Clinic

The HLA Program is directed by Steve Steffensen, MD, a board-certified neurologist in UT Health Austin’s Comprehensive Memory Center within the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences. Dr. Steffensen and Amanda Cantú, MSSW, who serves as the program coordinator for the HLA Program, founded the program in 2017 to offer undergraduates an opportunity to collaborate with faculty and staff from Dell Medical School on projects that promote community health. In 2018, the program expanded to include students from Huston-Tillotson University.

“We wanted to create a program that recognizes that health exists outside of health care,” says Dr. Steffensen. “Health happens where you work, live, play, and pray. If we want to have an impact on health, we must be in all those spaces.”

While most participants are pre-health students, the HLA Program is open to all majors and includes students across disciplines ranging from engineering to theatre and dance. “The HLA Program provides a platform for students in any field to find a community health project they’re interested in,” says Hadis, a senior majoring in biochemistry. “You can be involved in a wide range of activities beyond what is traditionally thought of as health care.”

For Rhea, who graduated with her degree in neuroscience in 2022 and has continued her involvement with the HLA Program during her gap year before attending medical school, the HLA Program has altered her understanding of health care. “Now, I don’t just think about the provider and the patients,” shares Rhea. “I think about the community members, the administrative and financial aspects, the social and economic issues, and how all these key factors come together.”

Responding to Local Need

The HLA Program also teaches students to listen to the needs of community members rather than establishing a project based on their own perception of a community’s needs. “I tell our students that their job is not to solve the community’s health problems,” says Dr. Steffensen. “Their job is to elevate the platform on which our community partners stand.” Dr. Steffensen arranges meetings between HLA students and partners within the local community to discuss how projects can further the goals of community organizations.

“When we approached Central Health with our ideas about how access to MAP could be improved, we realized we still had a lot to learn,” says Soumya. “We had to familiarize ourselves with how health care in the district had evolved up to that point and the barriers faced by everyone in the industry to ensure we weren’t just pointing fingers.”

While all projects within the HLA Program receive input from community partners, some of the challenges that HLA students help tackle are Community-Driven Initiatives, projects proposed to the Dell Medical School Department of Population Health by and for residents of Austin and Central Texas communities. HLA students can participate in these initiatives if the community member spearheading the project opts to include undergraduates in their efforts.

Leadership in Many Forms

Historically, internships at medical schools have been arranged through a cold-call process in which an interested student calls a doctor in hopes of being offered an opportunity to collaborate. “The problem with that approach is it tends to cater to the loudest voices, leaving students without as many resources to slip through the cracks,” explains Dr. Steffensen. “The HLA Program was created to try to improve that equity of opportunity.” The program’s application process, developed in collaboration with the Dell Medical School’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, seeks to address a gap in opportunity for marginalized students.

HLA students can choose from one of three tracks:

  • Track A - Team Projects: Students are assigned to teams, known as “Houses,” which work on projects typically for a community partner and often in collaboration with the Community-Driven Initiatives Program within the Dell Medical School Department of Population Health
  • Track B - Faculty/Staff Opportunities: Students become part of an “opportunity pool” wherein they can apply for volunteer work submitted by faculty and staff from the Dell Medical School and partners within the community
  • Track C - Self-Initiated Project: After the first year of involvement in the HLA Program, students can propose their own community, education, research, or clinical initiative, and if approved, will be provided with faculty mentorship

Many students who participate in Track A and/or Track B go on to complete Track C. Multiple endeavors that originated as self-initiated projects have become full organizations at UT Austin. These include Nourishment and Narratives with Neighbors, a monthly dinner and storytelling session hosted at a local affordable housing community for people who have experienced homelessness that aims to reduce the stigma in health care and deepen empathy for the formerly homeless population, and Longhorn Stop the Bleed, which teaches community members bleeding injury care to help prevent death from bleeding.

“The variety of projects available to our students speaks to our program’s commitment to equity, because students can tailor their involvement to the time and capacity that they have,” says Cantú.

For some students, such as Nathan, a junior majoring in biology, participation in these opportunities can have a major impact on future career choices. “I’ve been involved in a lot of HLA opportunities related to psychiatry and psychology, and now I’m considering a career in those specialties because of this program,” shares Nathan.

Soumya’s involvement in the HLA Program inspired her to continue working to expand healthcare access. She now assists with an initiative led by Robin Hilsabeck, PhD, ABPP, a neuropsychologist in UT Health Austin’s Comprehensive Memory Center, to improve patient intake at memory centers. “My experience with the HLA Program solidified my core values in which I believe people are important and health care is a human right for all,” says Soumya. “If I make an impact on just one individual or family, then my efforts have been worth it.”

Applications for the Health Leadership Apprentice Program open each spring. For updates on this year’s application cycle, visit here.

To learn more about the Comprehensive Memory Center or to schedule an appointment, call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.