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Six Power of We Scholars set their sights on inclusion, connection and community

Key Takeaways

  • The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation has awarded $10,000 scholarships to minority students pursuing degrees in health care since 2012 to help reduce health disparities by improving workforce diversity.
  • This year, the BlueCross Foundation has doubled the number of scholarships from 3 to 6 as part of our larger commitment to address systemic racism and injustice.

“We cannot miss this moment.”

In June, our chief medical officer Dr. Andrea Willis reflected on racism as “a threat to public health” and urged Tennesseans to address the health disparities faced by minority groups. One challenge is the lack of diversity in our state’s health care workforce.

The BlueCross Power of We Scholarship has existed since 2012 to help meet that challenge. Each year, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation awards $10,000 each to three outstanding minority students pursuing careers in health care. 

“The BlueCross Power of We Scholarship is one way we’ve been working toward health equity,” says Ron Harris, vice president of diversity and inclusion at BlueCross. “For many years, we’ve been supporting some of our state’s brightest students – who will lean on their unique insights as they deliver high-quality care for Tennesseans.”

This year, as part of our larger commitment to address systemic racism and injustice within our communities, the BlueCross Foundation has doubled the number of scholarships – awarding 6 total. 

Here’s how this year’s Power of We Scholars plan to use their voices and skills to foster inclusion, connection and community.

Marcus BarksdaleMarcus Barksdale

Senior, Nursing Major

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC)

Marcus Barksdale was going to be a doctor. It had been his dream as long as he could remember. 

Then, during his senior year of high school, he was struck by acute kidney failure. Instead of thinking about senior prom, he found himself in the hospital thinking about his recovery. When he needed support, his nurses were there, and that stuck with him.  

“I was pretty down, physically and mentally,” recalls Marcus. “My nurses played a critical role in my recovery — and not just the physical part of helping me walk. They gave me the care, support and encouragement I needed to get through it.”

Still, Marcus entered UTC on the pre-med track. He pursued a degree in biology, and he completed an internship at Erlanger Hospital where he shadowed caregivers. That’s when things changed.

“When I saw how much time nurses were able to spend with patients, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Marcus says. “They play such a pivotal role with patients, as well as with doctors and family members. Plus, nurses are often the first people who get to witness changes in their patients. That’s an incredible thing.”

Switching majors put Marcus on a five-year track, but he knew the extra year would be worth it. In his time at UTC, he’s held jobs on campus ranging from orientation leader and R.A. in a freshman dorm to student mentor. He’s worked in a lab, as a patient care tech and, most recently, as a nursing tech at Erlanger. Every experience prepared him in different ways, but he hopes to spend his last year at UTC focusing on his future. 

“This final year is going to be super challenging, so the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship is a huge help,” he says. “I’ll be able to work less, prepare for my boards and concentrate on being the best nurse I can be.”

After graduation, Marcus plans to be a nurse in the ICU. However, that’s just the first stop. Long-term, he plans to go to grad school, become a certified registered nurse anesthetist and serve the community in a rural hospital.

“While I grew up in Memphis, my father’s side of the family lives in Milan and Atwood, which are both small West Tennessee towns,” he says. “I’ve seen firsthand the challenges those communities have with access to care. I want to help solve that problem by giving back and delivering quality care to underserved communities.”

Alanis BurtonAlanis Burton

Senior, Health Science Major

Lee University

As a child in Athens, Tennessee, Alanis Burton saw the toll obesity can take — on a community and on a family.

“It was right in front of me growing up — obesity, diabetes, lack of access to healthy foods,” says Alanis. “A few years ago, I took a class on nutrition, and I fell in love. I knew I wanted it to be my life’s work.”

The first step: getting her degree in health science. In her years at Lee University, Alanis has become passionate about preventive care, learning about nutrition in the classroom, but also participating in research about how to promote healthy lifestyles in the community. Seeing the big picture was invaluable.

“Through my studies, I’ve learned about nutritional literacy and social determinants of health,” she says.  “Most importantly, I learned the ‘whys’ behind what I saw growing up, and I learned the ‘hows’ we can use to change those outcomes.”

Eventually, Alanis plans to seek a doctorate in public health, but that goal sometimes seems far off. She’s had to work a variety of jobs to pay for school — church secretary, housekeeper, cashier, nurse assistant — and balancing it all has been a struggle.

“School is really expensive, so I’ve been working a lot and living at home, which means a 1.5 hour commute each day,” she says. “But with the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship, I hope to live closer to school so I can spend more time studying and less time driving. I can’t wait to focus more on achieving my goals and less on working enough hours to pay for tuition and books.”

Alanis’s long-term plan is as ambitious as she is. She plans to put her education to use, pinpointing groups that are susceptible to diseases like obesity and diabetes, and using preventive programs to educate people about healthy eating and physical activity.

“I love nutritional epidemiology, community nutrition and public policy,” she says, “and I want to use the education I’m getting now to make sure all people have access to a healthy life through nutrition.”

Brianna JamesBrianna James

Junior, Exercise Science Major

University of Memphis

If you’ve ever seen a flyer — the person on a cheer squad who’s lifted or thrown in the air — in action, you understand why cheerleading is absolutely a contact sport. You also understand why Brianna James, both a varsity cheerleader and gymnast in high school, spent a lot of time in physical therapy (PT).

“I’ve had a multitude of ankle injuries, so I know that treatments can be an hour long, multiple days a week, over many weeks,” Brianna says. “But I love the hands-on nature of physical therapy because you get to spend a lot of time with the people in your care.  Really getting to know the patient and seeing them improve over time is extremely gratifying to me.”

Pursuing a career in physical therapy is a long road in many ways. After she graduates college, Brianna will have three more years of PT school to obtain her doctorate of physical therapy, followed by one more year getting her specialization to work with athletes. Ultimately, she’d like to open her own clinic.

Still, Brianna is sure of her path because she knows what she’s working for matters.

“In my time as an athlete and a college student, I’ve seen schools with great athletic programs that still have insufficient access to quality physical therapy,” she says. “I want to bring that access to underserved areas because I know how important rehab can be.”

Another part of her plan: changing the makeup of physical therapy as a whole.

“Did you know women of color make up only 5% of physical therapists who work with professional athletes?” she asks. “I want to be that face of change and show others that they can do it, too.”

While Brianna has been taking classes remotely at home in Franklin, she’s anxious to return to Memphis this fall.

“I’ve always taken classes online, so that hasn’t been a huge change for me,” she says, “but what I really want is to get back to my school, my community and my job.”

Throughout her college career, Brianna has been a supervisor in the Phonathon office, where students call alumni to request donations. She loves connecting with fellow students there, and while serving as director of the Civic Engagement Board. The student-run organization plans volunteer activities in the Memphis area, sending 50-150 volunteers out into the community one day a month.

“It’s amazing to see the impact those numbers can have in a single day,” she says.

But Brianna does more than just organize. She loves to volunteer at the Memphis Animal Service, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and Memphis Rocks, a pay-what-you-can rock climbing organization that also offers aftercare for kids. Being so busy with work, community and school, Brianna is thrilled to have the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship going into her junior year.

“This scholarship is tremendous,” she says. “Now, I’ll have a little breathing room financially. I won’t worry so much about needing to buy a book I hadn’t budgeted for, or paying a fee I didn’t expect. And I’ll be able to put the money I make at my job into savings. It really gives me peace of mind.”

Sydni LollarSydni Lollar

Junior, Honors Biomedical Engineering Major

University of Tennessee Knoxville

At 16, most girls are worrying about passing their driver’s license test. Sydni Lollar was worrying about the possibility of a breast cancer diagnosis.

“I had a tumor in my breast, which was especially scary because my aunt battled breast cancer in her 20s,” she says.

Fortunately, the mass was benign, and Sydni took more away from the experience than just a sense of relief.

“The care, support and healing that I received convinced me that I wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “I want to be the positive light for others that my doctor was for me.”

After spending a summer shadowing doctors and sitting in on surgeries, Sydni narrowed her path even further.

“I found my calling in orthopedics,” she says. “I like the balance between patient interaction and surgical skill.” 

As a biomedical engineering major with double minors in business administration and leadership studies, Sydni is busy working toward her goal. Somehow, she still finds time to participate in leadership roles with the Jones Center for Leadership and Service, the Society of Women Engineers and her school’s Student Government Association. Last year, she was also part of the Nutrition Education Activity Training (NEAT) program, where she taught nutrition to kids in grades 2-5 at Shannondale Elementary School in Knoxville.

But since COVID-19 hit, Sydni’s life has looked different. She’s been living at home in Greeneville, taking classes online and working at a nursing home with her brother. They both work 12-hour shifts, screening visitors and helping loved ones stay connected. 

“We can’t allow family members to come into the home, but we do take residents outside to a plexiglass structure where they can safely visit with friends and family,” she says. “We call it the Love Hut!”

COVID-19 has also taken a toll on Sydni’s family. Her father owns a sports bar that has been closed for months and stands little chance of reopening. Until now, she’s been worried about how she’d pay for tuition, books and rent.

“School is really expensive,” she says, “but this scholarship will help make up for the support my parents have given me in the past. Receiving it is a tremendous honor.”

Akia ThompsonAkia Thompson

Senior, Public Health Major

Belmont University

Health is about more than your body. That’s something Akia Thompson learned later in life, though she saw the effects early. 

“As a minority in a low-income area of Nashville, I grew up seeing health problems in my family and my community,” she says. “After studying determinants of health, I know the roots of those problems. There are so many things that determine health — where you live, your access to care, your ability to afford nutritious food or to get to places that sell that food. I want to dedicate my career to serving people who face those challenges.”

While her family members and role models during her childhood played a part in Akia’s decision to pursue a career in health care, it was a summer internship at Meharry Medical College that gave her a specific goal.

“Shadowing health professionals in multiple roles was so educational, and now I’m pursuing a career as a family nurse practitioner,” she says. “I like that I’ll get to spend time with patients, get to know them and deliver hands-on, holistic care.”

As a full-time student, Akia has a leadership position in her sorority promoting women’s health and wellness, and she is launching a Give-a-thon initiative this fall to raise funds for women, children and health care workers. She has also hosted Zumba and dance classes as a fun way to promote wellness and activity. And while reaching her goals will mean several years of school after she earns her public health degree, she’s certain of her path because she knows where she’s going.

“I love the public health program at Belmont because I know it will make me a better nurse,” she says. “Eventually, I want to open my own clinic in an underserved area. I hope to give people not just access to care, but also the knowledge and tools to live healthier lives. I want to be an agent of change.”

Akia believes the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship is the first step.

“I still have a lot of school ahead of me, and this scholarship does more than help me pay the bills,” she says. “It makes me feel more secure about pursuing my dreams.”

Deja WallsDeja Walls

Senior, Biology Major

Rhodes College

When most people think of health care careers, doctors or nurses spring to mind. Entering college, Deja Walls thought dentistry was where she would land. But after shadowing the experts at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, she realized another profession might be a better fit.

“I love the amount of time physician’s assistants have directly caring for patients,” Deja says.  “I helped care for my grandmother, who recently passed away from pancreatic cancer, and I saw what a difference that direct, compassionate care can make.”

Deja has loved the idea of working in health care as long as she can remember.

“I loved the white coats and the scrubs, of course,” she says, laughing, “but what I loved most was the idea of caring for people and improving their lives.” 

A senior at Rhodes College in Memphis, Deja is treasurer of her chapter of Tri-Beta Biological Honor Society, and she’s a founding member of the Rhodes chapter of the Minority Association of Premedical Students. It’s something that means a lot to her and to her family.

“I will be proud to be the first in my family to have a leadership position in health care,” she says. “I want to help other minority students pursue their careers in health care, too.”

The concept of inclusion is big for Deja. In her time at Le Bonheur, she noticed that there was only one translator for the entire facility, and it helped her come to another decision.

“Many physicians use a translation device, but being able to speak directly to people in a language they understand is so important,” she says. “I knew I needed to become bilingual if I really wanted to connect with Spanish-speaking families.”

To that end, Deja has already taken many Spanish courses, and she shadows Spanish translators at La Clínica Esperanza. When she’s not there, she works in retail and serves as a supplemental instructor in the biology department to help pay for school. While she loves her busy schedule, it has made it difficult to accumulate the hundreds of hours of patient care Deja needs to apply to physician assistant school.

“I am so busy with school and two jobs,” Deja says. “The BlueCross Power of We Scholarship means I can cut back on work and get the patient care hours I need to pursue my dream.”

Deja’s younger brother is also starting college this fall, and she’s thrilled that her scholarship will take some pressure off of her family.

“My parents have been incredibly helpful to me financially through college, but now they have him to support, too,” she says. “This scholarship allows me to take responsibility for myself. That’s a great feeling.”

For more on this year’s Power of We Scholars, and to see a special surprise we sent their way, watch the video below.

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