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WVU-led initiative engages West Virginia youth in their communities

A male student in a red shirt and shorts and a female student in a green shirt and jeans use a tablet to work while in an auditorium.

High school students from across West Virginia participating in the Health Sciences & Technology Academy attended a training session at the WVU Health Sciences Center, part of a community initiative facilitated by the School of Public Health. (WVU Photo/Davidson Chan)

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The West Virginia University School of Public Health and Health Sciences & Technology Academy are collaborating on a project that will facilitate another relationship across West Virginia — connecting the state’s youth with their communities.

The statewide project, supported by a $525,000 grant from the state Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health, aims to reduce COVID-19 health disparities among adults with high-risk conditions such as diabetes and other chronic diseases.

By collaborating with HSTA, WVU researchers are able to engage trusted individuals in rural communities throughout the state and provide experiential learning opportunities for the next generation of health care professionals. A mentoring program implemented through WVU Health Sciences, HSTA helps underrepresented high school students in 27 of West Virginia’s 55 counties enter and succeed in STEM-based undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

“HSTA and its students, teachers, field officers and leaders have been working in West Virginia for a long time and are trusted messengers,” said Ranjita Misra, principal investigator of the project, and professor and Ph.D. program director in the School of Public Health. “Getting youth engaged in public health education provides an opportunity to not only educate them about public health issues, but also to understand and engage in community-based disease prevention and management activities.”

Training programs were held virtually and on the Health Sciences area of campus in Morgantown to teach health navigators how to implement community-based intervention designed to increase knowledge of COVID-19 risk factors, prevention measures and vaccine confidence. The health navigators began working in their communities this fall and will continue their work through May 2023.

In addition to high school students participating in HSTA, trainees also include undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the WVU School of Medicine and a student participating in the Appalachian Gerontology Experiences – Advancing Diversity in Aging Research Scholars Program.

“The opportunity to help students gain skills in communication, public health practice and education, and even research, at their age has been so rewarding,” said Brenna Kirk, a member of the training team and doctoral candidate in Public Health Sciences. “Their energy and genuine interest in learning is so inspiring. They give us great confidence in the potential this project has, not only for the communities these students will serve, but also in the students' personal and professional growth as well.”

The first of the two-part training session focuses on educating the navigators in public health competencies related to diabetes, COVID-19, primary prevention, social determinants of health, epidemiology, community asset and resource mapping, health communication, decision-making and ethical dilemmas. Trainees then receive hands-on practice using a tablet-based research system, and complete mock interviews and case studies to simulate encounters they may experience while contacting members of their community.

“The health navigators are engaging in an educational intervention through conversational discussion,” Misra said. “After recruiting adults with chronic disease in the communities where they live, navigators share short videos about COVID-19 featuring local experts, discuss commonly asked questions and myths, complete the post-intervention survey, and provide participants with useful handouts and test kits.”

Health navigators will then complete analysis on the data collected and prepare a symposium presentation on their research.

Upon completion, the initiative will help combat the lack of research that evaluates the impact of COVID-19 health disparities in adults with diabetes and co-morbid chronic conditions in rural West Virginia and equip the state’s youth to be resource leaders in their respective communities.



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