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2021 BlueCross Power of We Scholars advocate for representation, mental health and more

Key Takeaways

  • Each year, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation awards $10,000 scholarships to minority students pursuing degrees in health care.
  • The goal of these scholarships is to help reduce health disparities by improving diversity in the state’s health care workforce and combating systemic racism and injustice.
  • Since 2013, the foundation has awarded $285,000 to students leading the charge.
  • This year, the BlueCross Foundation awarded 6 scholarships to students across the state.

What does quality care for every population look like?  

It’s a goal long committed to at BlueCross, and one that’s come into sharp focus in recent years. Where health disparities and injustice were part of the conversation before, today they are the conversation. 

“Racism is more than our society’s greatest injustice — it is a threat to public health,” says BlueCross Chief Medical Officer Dr. Andrea Willis. “BlueCross has a mission to provide peace of mind through better health, but there are minorities who don’t yet have peace.” 

“One way we can help change that is by creating a diverse workforce. There is beauty in that because it compels us to find solutions that work for all of us. Today, we must re-examine what we mean when we talk about quality care for disparate populations, and we must shape our giving to combat injustice, starting at home.”

The BlueCross Power of We Scholarship is one way the company promotes equity in health care. 

Every year since 2013, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation has awarded scholarships to outstanding minority students pursuing careers in health care. This year, it offered $10,000 each to 6 more students who are already inspiring change across Tennessee.   

“We are proud to support some of our state’s brightest students,” says Ron Harris, vice president of corporate workforce diversity at BlueCross. “And we hope they will use their unique insights and experiences to help deliver high-quality care for all Tennesseans.”

Here are this year’s BlueCross Power of We Scholars:

Veronica Bernaba

Veronica Bernaba

Senior, Nursing
Belmont University

To treat someone’s body, you have to understand their life. In America, we often think of a holistic approach to health care as a luxury, rather than a necessity. But knowing how someone lives can make all the difference.

“In nursing school, we’re learning that some blood pressure medications won’t work for certain ethnicities,” says Veronica Bernaba. “Yet often, providers are unaware of a patient’s ethnic background — how they eat, how they live. They don’t understand that a patient can’t take their medication properly because the directions on the label are in English and they only speak Spanish. But understanding is important. We have to remember, every day, that the person we’re taking care of is a human being, not a diagnosis or disease.”

For Veronica, health care has always been personal.  She’s seen what chronic illness can do firsthand, to a family and a community.

Miko McDowell

Miko McDowell

Senior, Nursing
University of Memphis 

Having a sibling in health care was a blessing and a curse for Miko McDowell. She admired her older sister for her work as an ICU nurse, but as a fiercely independent person, Miko knew it was important for her to find her own calling.

“I spent a long time running from the nursing profession,” says Miko. “I wanted to do something where I could use my skills and my personality, and I loved the personal aspect of caring for patients. But I wanted to do it in a way that was different from my sister.”

Miko found that through Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA), a program at her high school that exposes youth to health care careers. Emergency medicine, surgery, physical therapy, nursing — Miko got a front-row seat to it all. One semester, she even got to pull on scrubs and go into the hospital to observe the professionals in action. That was all it took. 

“I saw the nurses doing everything I wanted to do in terms of hands-on care,” Miko says.  “They were able to care for patients in a way I hadn’t seen any other professionals do. Seeing that early on was such a blessing. Most high school students don’t get that opportunity.”

Nesma Abdelnabi

Nesma Abdelnabi 

Senior, Nursing
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Looking at Nesma Abdelnabi’s family, it’s not surprising that she chose a career in health care. Several of her uncles are pharmacists, and her older sister is studying to become one. But the real reason Nesma is dedicating her life to health care is her brother. 

“My brother has autism, and I grew up going to his doctors’ appointments,” says Nesma. “I learned so much watching his health care team and going with him to occupational, speech or behavioral therapy. I saw how many people were involved in his care, and how many truly made a difference — whether it was a good or bad difference. I knew I wanted to help kids like him.  They are an underserved minority, especially here in Knoxville where we don’t have as many resources when it comes to caring for people with special needs.”

As a Certified Nursing Assistant at UT Medical Center, Nesma is already on the front lines. She’s worked in the progressive care and cardiothoracic surgery units, even before she’s officially begun her final year of nursing school. It’s a huge accomplishment, and one that holds special significance for Nesma and her family.

Mya Morrow

Mya Morrow

Senior, Nursing
University of Memphis, Lambuth

When it comes to health, a little bit of knowledge can save a life. For Mya Morrow, that simple truth is personal. 

“When I was younger, my mom was very ill,” says Mya. “One day, she had a stroke while I was home. She didn’t realize that’s what was happening, but I knew the signs — what to expect, what to look for. I took her to the hospital, even though she didn’t want to go because she thought she was perfectly fine. But my having that knowledge made all the difference.” 

Her grandmother suffered from kidney problems, so Mya learned everything she needed to know to care for her at a young age, from medications to how to change her linens. In that way, Mya was a care provider long before she decided to make it her life’s work. 

“My auntie, she’s a nurse as well,” says Mya. “Watching what she was doing and how she took her time caring for her mother and was so passionate about it — it really touched me.” 

Soon, Mya will officially follow in her aunt’s footsteps as a nurse.  In May 2022, she’ll graduate from the University of Memphis with her bachelor of science in nursing, and she’ll become a registered nurse (RN).

Soriya Cooper

Soriya Cooper

Junior, Humanitarian I/O Psychology
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Growing up, Soriya Cooper’s family didn’t ask for help with their health. Like everyone, they needed and wanted it. But they didn’t know who to trust. 

“When my sister was pregnant, I talked to her every day,” says Soriya. “She had all these very real concerns, but she didn’t have anyone to ask about them. It made me realize that, when you don’t have a provider you can trust, every story you hear confirms your worst fears.”

For Soriya’s sister, Maranda, those fears became reality when she and her baby nearly died from her unaddressed preeclampsia during pregnancy. While Maranda and her baby are healthy today, the experience reinforced something for Soriya that she’d always felt: If she wanted the health care industry to be different, she would have to change it.  

“I know I could be a great provider, but I feel constrained by only treating one patient at a time,” she says. “I really want to help prevent declining health, injuries and death on a large scale because that’s the only way I can help the people who need it most — the ones who are pushed aside because of their race, class or the type of insurance they can afford.” 

So Soriya created her own major — something less than 10 students are allowed to do each year through the College Scholars program at UT. Today, she’s studying “humanitarian industrial and organizational psychology with an emphasis in international public health policy.” If it sounds complex, that’s because it is — Soriya’s curriculum includes everything from psychology to political science to courses on health care and climate change.

Sierra Cruz

Sierra Cruz

Junior, Biology and Psychology
Middle Tennessee State University

 “If I can do it, you can do it.”

“Where you came from is not where you’re going.” 

“Don’t let anything stop you.”

A few years ago, Sierra Cruz attended a medical conference at the University of Louisville. She expected to hear and learn from leaders in her field. But she never expected to be inspired to the point of changing her life.   

“I had never seen an all-Black panel of medical professionals,” Sierra recalls. “Growing up in Wisconsin, I was one of four minorities in a class of 2,000 students. Hearing from Black women who were already physicians was the biggest motivator in the world to me. These women were real with us. They told us their stories and they said, ‘This is where I came from, but this is not where you have to go. You can change the whole narrative.’”

That sense of power was transformative. As a first-generation college student, Sierra knows what it’s like to forge a path not just for herself but for her whole family.  It’s a privilege, but one that comes with a lot of pressure. 

“It’s not just my parents who didn’t go to college; it’s my grandparents and their parents,” she says. “I wanted to be a nurse because my mom’s a nurse, and I knew there was an added financial burden when you go from nurse to doctor, on top of the financial struggles I already have just paying for tuition. But hearing the stories of these powerful Black women — the obstacles they had to go through but all they still accomplished — that made me believe I can do it. And I’m going to do it.”

Get to know this year’s scholars better

Each of the 2021 BlueCross Power of We Scholars has an extraordinary story. In the coming weeks, we’ll be featuring full profiles on each of the recipients. In the meantime, watch the video below to get to know this year’s scholars better – and to see a special surprise we sent their way.

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