We recently announced the 2021 recipients of the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding students working to promote equity in the health care field.
This story is part of a series profiling each of this year’s six winners.
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.
Preparing to make a difference
Soriya started college as a neuroscience major with plans to be a doctor. Often, she found herself thinking about mental illness. She remembered family members who struggled silently with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and she thought about her own battles with ADHD, PTSD and depression. Eventually, she realized neuroscience wasn’t the best path for her.
“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. As intricate as her major is, her goal remains simple.
“I want to figure out what makes someone resilient and give those tools to people of every ethnicity.”
Experience guides the way
To do it, she’ll pull from all her life experiences. For a 29-year-old, she’s had many. Soriya became a licensed practical nurse (LPN) while serving in the military. As a member of the Army Reserves, she still drives eight hours to Missouri once a month to work in the ICU. She holds leadership roles at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, despite not being religious. (As a humanitarian atheist, Soriya joined for a sense of community and activism, which she’s glad to report she found.) She also volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters, helping a 7-year-old African-American girl through her own mental health struggles.
“I get to help my ‘little sister’ come into her own,” says Soriya. “I get to build her confidence while helping her learn to manage her ADHD. It’s the kind of help I wish I’d gotten growing up.”
In recent years, Soriya also worked as a pediatric nurse caring for physically disabled children. She often treated seizures and performed life-saving CPR. It left her mentally and emotionally exhausted, and though it was rewarding, she eventually had to quit in order to stay in school. But that came with financial challenges of its own.
“I knew my mental health was suffering, and that my schoolwork would suffer if I had to go back to work, but I didn’t see any other way,” she says. “That all changed when I got the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship. For me, this scholarship is more than financial support. It’s validating that my ideas are worthy and that I can do this. It’s really an honor.”
Today, Soriya is President of Tau Sigma, an honor society for transfer students that allows her to address ageism in the classroom. She’s active in veterans affairs, African-American causes and the student government’s Health and Wellness Committee. And she recently received a scholarship from the Department of Defense to study languages that are “essential to America’s engagement with the world.”
“I speak some Spanish and Arabic, but my main focus is learning Swahili,” she says. “America has a lot of African immigrants who are left by the wayside when they get here because no one can translate for them. They are predicted to be one of the groups most affected by climate change-related displacement and will require allies.”
Planning for the future
Looking beyond graduation, Soriya plans to attend graduate school for public policy. She wants to continue her research into resiliency and acculturation stress (the mental and emotional challenges of adapting to a new culture). No matter what she learns or where she goes, Soriya knows she’ll never forget the feeling of uncertainty she’s working to correct.
“Even though I’m already part of the health care community, I still have that feeling of not knowing who to trust,” she says. “It’s scary to open yourself up to a provider and wonder, ‘Am I going to be well taken care of?’ That is a real fear of mine. And it’s something I hope I can change. Actually, no — it’s something that I will change.”
About the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship
- Each year, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation awards $10,000 scholarships to minority students pursuing degrees in health care.
- Recipients are chosen in collaboration with the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) – Memphis Chapter.
- 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.
For more information, see BCBSTnews.com/scholarship.