From the community health worker program at Malcolm X to her master’s at Northeastern

Sometimes it can take longer than we think to find an ideal career path, but we can end up in a great place. It took me a few extra stops on my career journey to figure out what I wanted to do, but I’m proud of where I am today and happy to be making an impact.

I grew up in Chicago’s Rogers Park and West Ridge neighborhoods. I didn’t graduate from high school, though I wanted to. Family issues and too many absences were going to delay my graduation, so I chose to get my high school equivalency and took the GED in 2003 instead.

I went immediately into the workforce, working odd jobs in a factory and later as a pharmacy technician. I even took some prerequisite classes at City Colleges in x-ray technology, but I never worked in that field. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized I wanted to try something different after 17 years in various jobs. I longed for greater work-life balance and the chance to make a greater impact, so I began exploring different healthcare career pathways.

It was important to me to find a path to a new career without spending a lot of time and money on school. I came across a description for a community health worker (CHW) position and felt like that was exactly what I should be doing. Then, when looking at job descriptions and potential salaries, I saw a listing for an “earn while you learn apprenticeship model” that would hire me as a CHW apprentice while I earned a community health worker credential at Malcolm X College. I was sold. I began the Malcolm X College CHW program in spring 2021 and was placed as a community health worker apprentice at JourneyCare, an agency focused on hospice and palliative care.

Through my participation in an apprenticeship, I was able to earn a community health worker credential from Malcolm X College in one semester taking just three classes. Normally, the program would have required five classes, but previous training I had completed and on-the-job learning allowed me to test out of two.

The best part was that those classes were paid for through the apprenticeship program and built into my 40-hour work week. This is huge for people like me who are raising kids and trying to advance their career without going into debt. Apprenticeships are really designed for people to succeed, and they are so valuable.

After completing my apprenticeship, I secured a full-time position at the HAP Foundation, which formed when JourneyCare was sold in early 2022. My work here is a bit more niche than other CHW roles I’ve seen. I was promoted to lead community education associate and research liaison at HAP Foundation, and my new title emphasizes that I am involved heavily in education. I do outreach and community education focused on serious illness in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood, right where I grew up and continue to live today.

Our team provides culturally-affirming education for community members related to serious illness, hospice care, palliative care, and advanced directives. The long-term plan is to heavily involve our CHWs, myself included, in community-based, participatory research, work that is inspired by our current partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research organization. We are a trusted member of the community who will help facilitate research to find out what is working and what needs to change to better serve diverse Chicagoans as they navigate end-of-life care.

I’ve become so passionate about health equity. Community health workers are considered frontline public health workers, and I’m so glad to do this work. I believe health research shouldn’t be a bunch of academics throwing around statistics and big words. It should be used to uncover problems and get funding to provide real solutions to the community.

For so many years, I hesitated to pursue higher education. I thought, I am pretty smart, but I work and have a kid, so this will be too hard. The support I received through the apprenticeship program showed me I could do it. It proved to me that I would be successful in a bachelor’s degree program, which I completed at Northeastern Illinois University in May 2022. The program was geared toward working adults, which was perfect for me. Now, I am pursuing a master’s in Public Health there, and I’ve even started mentoring new community health workers to give back.

It may have taken nearly 20 years to get here, but I’m so glad I did. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.