Dec. 1, 2020

RISE for health: UCalgary medical students work with immigrant youth to co-create health programs, address health disparities

Health and wellness program led by Turin Chowdhury gives students opportunity for experiential learning

University of Calgary student Whitney Ereyi-Osas is only in her first year of medical school, but the experience under her belt is already significant — the result of four years spent working with immigrant youth.

The Refugee and Immigrant Student Empowerment (RISE) initiative, led by Dr. Turin Chowdhury, PhD, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), provides medical students the opportunity to learn from and co-create community health programs with high school-aged immigrant youth.

  • Photo above: A group of Refugee and Immigrant Student Empowerment (RISE) students with program lead Turin Chowdhury. Photo supplied by Turin Chowdhury

As part of the initiative, students and youth come together to plan and execute health and wellness learning activities geared toward tackling challenges faced by immigrant and refugee communities in Calgary. They focus on topics such as the social determinants of health, mental health, health and wellness literacy, health research, and undergraduate and career options.

Ereyi-Osas has been involved in RISE since her undergraduate days. She says the program has highlighted the need to work directly with the community when addressing health disparities.

University of Calgary student Whitney Ereyi-Osas has been involved with the RISE program for years.

University of Calgary student Whitney Ereyi-Osas has been involved with the RISE program for years.

Whitney Ereyi-Osas

“[Students and doctors often] look at the problem, look at statistics, look at research and we kind of come up with a solution on our own,” she says. “But I think this program has really highlighted the importance of actually working with the people you're trying to enact change with and involving them in their decision-making process, and seeing the results that come out of it.”

Ereyi-Osas is a second-generation immigrant from Nigeria. She says she’s seen first-hand the importance of making health, as a discipline, accessible to youth.

“Growing up, I was really interested in health, but I didn't necessarily know where to turn to for resources and support," says Ereyi-Osas. "But I think this program really acts as a catalyst. I think it can be hard to find avenues of support as kids of immigrants or as new immigrants.”

COVID-19 has currently forced the program online, but Ereyi-Osas says the pandemic has shown that there is no better time to get involved in the initiative, as the coronavirus has exposed health disparities.

“I think even the opportunity to be a part of that change and be a part of something in today's current era with COVID is something that's new and exciting and also very innovative.”

Chowdhury, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the CSM says there are plenty of learning programs for young people available in Calgary, but most of them aren’t accessible for hard-to-reach youth. RISE’s aim is to create a program where immigrant youth can learn about health and wellness issues and be mentored by UCalgary students. The students, on the other hand, get hands-on experience in curriculum and lesson-plan development, session planning, co-ordinating, and presenting, as well as community outreach, and communication.

A group of Refugee and Immigrant Student Empowerment (RISE) students.

A group of Refugee and Immigrant Student Empowerment (RISE) students.

Turin Chowdhury

“The community benefits from it, the university benefits from it," says Chowdhury. "That type of mix, that's what we wanted to do — to create a win-win scenario that we believe will lead toward the sustainability of such programs. This program takes the approach of infinite gain where baby steps are taken towards developing strong ties with the community."

The initiative is currently seeking undergraduate and medical students, professors and scholars from the UCalgary community to become a part of the program. Students can join as a co-curricular Community Engaged Learning (CEL) activity of the Cumming School of Medicine.

To become involved in the project, email turin.chowdhury@ucalgary.ca.