By Melanie Raskin
Mohamed Jawara is used to being flexible and fast on his feet. After immigrating to the U.S. from Sierra Leone as a 12-year-old, he attended five middle schools in three year as his mother pursued better job opportunities, often working two shifts to make ends meet. They were also saving money to sponsor his father and three siblings back home (they eventually succeeded in reuniting the family after 10 years — and a world — apart).
Despite the instability, he excelled in school. While Jawara was unsure of his future, he was certain of one thing: He wanted to improve people’s lives. It’s not surprising having a childhood where poverty was rampant and diseases such as malaria and typhoid are still commonplace. And, as a newcomer to the U.S., hesaw the social and economic determinants of health that impact access to health care. “I have witnessed what it feels like to have little, and as a result, I want to serve, to help those who don’t have access to resources,” he explained. “Others have done that for me, they went out of their way to get me where I am. It’s my time to give back and pay it forward, to serve my community and alleviate some of that burden for others.”
Easing the burdens of underserved communities is what the Loma Linda University Health Discovery Program for high schoolers is all about. The three-week program introduces underserved teens to entry-level job training opportunities in health care and inspires them to bring their certifications and care to their home turf. From the lectures and speakers to the mentors and encouragement, Jawara was hooked. “I developed skills I did not know I had: communication, leadership and a work ethic. I learned that I had a passion for health care from shadowing a pediatrics professional in the community. Seeing that care and how satisfied the patients were at the end of the visit resonated with me and gave me an extra spark. And I loved the diversity in the high school program. There were students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, yet all had one common desire: to learn more about health care. I feel good about that. We are the new face of health care. And as more diverse people are represented in thisfield, patients will become more comfortable with diversity.”
Currently studying for his boards after graduating from the physician assistant program at the University of California, Davis, Jawara discovered something else from his experience with the Loma Linda program: Health care and faith work best hand-in-hand. “No matter what religion, there is a core belief that we should take care of each other and help our neighbor,” he said. “Having a strong moral compass, seeing yourself in your patients and working to understand others results in better health care providers delivering better health care.”