When Sarah Andrea was growing up in the small town of Coventry, Rhode Island, her family had a saying: “We don’t have a lot of money, but we have a lot of love.”
All the love in the world, however, can’t help with navigating and funding a college education. Sarah’s parents didn’t go to college themselves. Her father was a truck driver; her mother waited tables.
Still, Sarah did make it to college, and far beyond. She would eventually earn an undergraduate degree and then a Master of Public Health degree, paying for them through student loans and her working full-time as she was attending school. She is now in her second year of the Ph.D. in Epidemiology program at the School of Public Health.
Ask Sarah how she’s made it to where she is, however, and she won’t talk about how her hard work alone allowed her to “beat the odds.”
The story is more complicated – and better – than that, she says.
It’s a story of the systemic hurdles that are often in front of first generation college students, and how important it is to have key people in your corner along the way to help knock down those hurdles.
“My hard work and can-do attitude could only carry me so far in life,” Sarah says. “The real reason why I’ve made it this far in my education is because of all of the incredible people in my life who have helped to remove so many of the barriers that first generation college students face.”
She thinks of her mother’s “constant encouragement, love and support my entire life,” she says. “When I was little, my mother read to me every night she wasn’t working and routinely told me that I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to.” That love and encouragement meant that – even without any family role models who went to college – “I thought college was a possibility for me.”
Later, Kimberle Chapin, M.D., the director of the diagnostic molecular lab at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, saw Sarah’s application for a clerk job in her laboratory and instead hired her as her research assistant. Chapin recognized and removed significant barriers to pursuing a career in research by listing Sarah as a co-author on peer-reviewed articles and supporting her travel to present at national conferences.
“She gave me so many opportunities,” Sarah says. “Because of her support, in just a few years I had a compelling resume that made me a more worthwhile candidate for other research positions and graduate school.”
Then, several years ago, as she contemplated entering the M.P.H. program at the School of Public Health, Bill Lambert – then head of the M.P.H. in Epidemiology program – encouraged her to apply and advocated for her even though her undergraduate grades were hardly stellar. “Bill really fought for me to come into the program,” she says. She was put on academic probation entering the program to prove she was a worthy student but “it was because he fought for me that I was even given the chance to do that. … I can’t say enough about Bill Lambert. He’s an incredible student advocate.”
While these important people have helped her break down barriers, Sarah also embraces the reality of those barriers – and believes she will be a better public health researcher as a result.
Because of her working class upbringing, she understands the realities of many people’s lives – from how difficult it might be to find fresh fruits and vegetables for their families to worrying about paying the next month’s rent, or next term’s tuition bills. And she understands how that can affect people’s health.
“It is in part because of my own experiences that I have a personal investment and insight into the social determinants of health and understand many of the barriers that people face,” she says. “This is core to who I am – to my values. Someone who has not had this kind of lived experience is not as primed to ask the right questions.”
For her Ph.D. dissertation, Sarah is looking at mental and physical health issues in “tipped workers” — workers who in many states are legally paid less than $3 per hour and depend on highly variable tips from customers to make ends meet.
“Growing up, so many of my family members and friends – especially the women – worked in these service industry jobs, like waiting tables at restaurants. We were all intimately aware of this special tipped worker minimum wage and other legal but unfair workplace practices because we or someone we cared about was being subjected to them. But in the academic arena, a lot of folks don’t have that blue-collar background and are taken by surprise when they hear about some of these unjust practices, which is understandable. If you’ve never had to work in the service industry, you can’t be expected to know what that’s like.”
Sarah plans to investigate whether policy changes that would increase the minimum wage for these workers – particularly low-income women – could mean they would be less likely to have depression or anxiety. She will also examine the potential impact of such a policy change on the birth weight of their children.
The public health profession will only benefit by having more students like her entering the profession, Sarah says. That’s why she so appreciates the people who have helped to level the playing field for her. It’s also why she’s excited about the School of Public Health’s Dean Scholarship Fund, which will award scholarships to first-generation college students from lower-income families and more diverse backgrounds.
“The Dean’s scholarship is important because it too has the power to remove a significant barrier for people,” Sarah says. “And while it can’t directly change the barriers people have grown up with, it can help people from blue-collar families get to a position where they are able to ask the right questions about our greatest public health challenges. And only then will we get the right answers.”