Amber Wilburn wants to build a link between the academic side of public health and the communities that need it most. The recipient of the 2007-08 Thurgood Marshall Graduate Fellowship, Amber envisions a career in teaching and research, closely tied to a center for disadvantaged women and families.
"In my studies, it's become evident that there is a significant lack of African American professors in the area of minority and maternal health," says Amber, a first-year Ph.D. student in the department of public health. "By earning a doctorate, I'll be able to help raise students' awareness of minority and women's health concerns, and also give back to my community with well-researched policies and programs."
In low-income communities, social and cultural complexities can make it difficult to effectively provide public health services. Amber learned this firsthand through an internship in Los Angeles during the summer of 2005. In a Planned Parenthood program for pregnant and parenting mothers, she worked closely with young women who seemed stuck in the cycle of poverty. As an example, she describes an 18-year-old mother of a two-year-old. Her parents were immigrants who spoke little English, depending on her younger brother and sister, 14 and 16 years old, to be translators. Less than two years later, the sister is pregnant and the brother has fathered a child with another young woman in the program.
"The education system isn't working for them, and they don't know how to access the resources that could make their lives different, so they keep repeating the patterns they're in," she says. "They need social programs that provide education, access, and support, and build the self-esteem of both parents and children."
Amber's internship assignment was to write a curriculum that would help young mothers develop some practical skills — computer and interviewing, as well as safe sexual health —during their participation in the Planned Parenthood program. The curriculum has been adopted, but Amber says when she has finished her degree, she'll be better equipped to target research and theoretical models to populations like pregnant and parenting teens.
She envisions opening a center in a low-income area to offer research-based programs in health education, life skills, and social support for women and families of color. Dr. Sheryl Thorburn, Amber's major professor, supports her in this vision.
"She strives in her own career to make the academic-community linkages that are essential for strengthening institutions of higher education and improving the health of communities," Thorburn says.
Amber has been working with diverse communities at OSU since she began her master's program in 2004. She is a graduate assistant in the Educational Opportunities Program, providing academic advising to American ethnic minority undergraduates and non-traditional students. She is also active in a number of community service events through Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. This year, she and other OSU students have started mentoring African American girls in a local transition program, meeting with them around issues of health, economics, and the importance of education.
"As an African American woman, it is important to me to give back to my community and other communities of color," she says. "My ancestors struggled so that I could have equal opportunities. I feel it would be a disservice to myself and the people who came before me if I did not aspire to achieve and help others who have limited opportunities."