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Tackling health disparity with innovation and student empowerment

I could have thought about the decision more. I could have consulted my parents about accepting an offer to teach high school biology and chemistry at Northampton County High School in Gaston County, North Carolina. Yet, eight years after coming to the eastern part of the state as a Teach For America corps member, I have no regrets about the move.

As a teacher in Northampton County, I fell in love with my students and the area. I learned a great deal about the teenagers in my classroom and school — their abilities, their dreams for the future and yes, their struggles. The impacts of public health on their personal lives being one of those struggles.

As graduate of Princeton University with a degree in anthropology, I have long been interested in the intersection of health and education. I want to best understand what needs to be true in our schools and communities to help all students lead long, productive and healthy lives.

In and around the county where I taught, teen pregnancy rates have been disproportionately higher compared to those in more affluent, non-rural parts of our state for some time. While students are supposed to receive state mandated sex education in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, my experience was that many of them still sought additional answers relating to puberty, STDs and gender identities, to name a few.

These experiences, and the impacts of teen pregnancy on students as young as 14 or 15 years, never left my mind as I began to research masters programs in public health. I purposefully enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the hopes of remaining close to my students and seeking solutions to what I had grown to care most about: bridging the gap between public health and public education and decreasing health disparities in our rural communities that hinder student growth.

Vichi Jagannathan, a Princeton classmate and fellow Teach For America—Eastern North Carolina alumna, shares this passion. Together, we have sought to breakdown the institutional barriers that knowingly or unknowingly prevent all children from accessing the knowledge they want and need. We witnessed first-hand that education alone, especially in our rural, lower-income schools, is not a silver bullet capable of solving for the many factors influencing the mental and emotional growth of students.

In 2016, we launched our nonprofit MyHealthEd, Inc., and our mission is to use human-centered design to improve the health and well-being of youth of every identity. Our first product, a mobile app called Real Talk now reaches about 5,000 local teenagers. Through the app, teens ages 13 to 15 can access high-quality sex education while reading stories from real teenagers about puberty, relationships, bullying and more. The information is accessible in both format (stories are presented as text message conversations, the app can be accessed via phone and soon will be accessible without an internet connection) and language (content is written by teenagers and reviewed by our Real Talk team).

With Real Talk, students can select the topics and stories that interest them most. Thus far, we have seen a willingness among users to share personal stories about puberty, relationships, and bullying and users like the peer-to-peer sharing of experiences and knowledge. Paired with additional hyperlinks from reliable sources, teens can access a host of stories at their fingertips. While the app is not designed to replace traditional sex education, it bridges an existing gap between health and education while drastically expanding access to information for rural students in our area.

Too often and for too long the differing sectors that impact young people — healthcare, housing, education, technology and so forth — have operated in silos. In the years ahead, our hope is that Real Talk plays an important role in a larger local and national effort to promote the well-being of the “whole child.” We aim to partner with additional teachers and schools as well as families and communities to move away from an approach that focuses on merely academic success and refocuses on the many factors impacting a child’s growth and success, both inside and outside the classroom. As such, we need leaders across sectors working collectively to further the health of all young people to better prepare them for our 21st century workforce.

When I first moved to this region I was rather confident I would move back north after my Teach For America commitment in Northampton County concluded. Today, as support for our mobile app continues to grow, we have never been more motivated to collaborate with leaders and organizations across communities and sectors to expand access to high-quality health tools in our rural communities. And as a former teacher, I could not be more proud of the role students are playing in these efforts. To learn with and work alongside our young people to empower student voices and provide a platform that helps them be the architects of their own future, it’s a teacher’s dream.  

Liz Chen

Liz Chen is a 2010 alumna of Teach For America–Eastern North Carolina. After earning an undergraduate degree from Princeton University in 2010, she taught biology and chemistry at Northampton County High School for two years. Liz co-founded MyHealthEd in 2016, a nonprofit organization that uses human- centered design to improve the health and well-being of youth of every identity. She also serves as a co- director of ENC STEM, a three-week summer program serving students across three local school districts in eastern North Carolina. The program was founded in partnership with two Teach For America alumni, including Liz’s now husband, Dale Hammer.

Liz has a master’s degree in public health from UNC Chapel Hill. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Health Behavior at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She and Dale split time between Chapel Hill, NC and Littleton, NC.