Each year, students are awarded $1,500 to engage in community-engaged research through The Undergraduate Fellowships for Community-Engaged Research Program (CEnR/UROP), a partnership between the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry and the Center for Community Engagement and Impact (CEI).
By Jenny Pedraza
“I hope to eventually enter medical school and become a trauma surgeon,” said Jessie Feng, ’21, a biology major with minors in chemistry and psychology. “Because people will be putting their lives and the lives of their loved ones in my hands, there must be a basis of trust between physicians and patients. I want patients to feel comfortable going to their health care providers with complete honesty about their needs and ailments. I want medicine to be a safe and neutral space where anyone and everyone can gain equal access to healthcare without fear of inequality.”
Over the summer and continuing this academic year, Feng is utilizing a UROP Fellowship to explore medical mistrust through her project, “Exploring Possible Areas of Medical Mis/Distrust Between VCU Health Systems and the RVA Community.”
Under the guidance of her mentor, Amanda Hall, director of community-engaged research and special projects in the Center for Community Engagement and Impact, Feng adjusted her work to be sensitive to social justice issues following George Floyd’s death and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
How did you have to adapt your fellowship plans this summer because of COVID? What did that teach you? What is one lesson learned you think will always stick with you?
Unfortunately due to the hurt we are all experiencing with George Floyd’s death, my mentor and I felt that pushing my project as a member of the VCU community would be inappropriate and just disrespectful to the RVA community. Now we are focusing on how the conversion of online service-learning courses has affected students’ abilities to form meaningful connections with community members. We would like to determine if inclusion, empathy and acceptance are transferrable in an online setting. I learned that it is okay to put our projects on hold to show respect for the community. Although many researchers have good intentions, they may cause more harm than good by pushing our research on them.
Describe your community-engaged research experience with one word:
Rewarding. I have learned so much about the BLM movement and the racial injustice present in the medical field, especially at VCU. Because of the change in projects, I have learned so much about how online learning can affect the translation of empathy, which is extremely important with community engagement.
Did your experience this summer change or affirm your career or professional interests?
It has not changed my career aspirations. I have and always will be fascinated by the work that our physicians do. However, I now see that there are politics involved in a “neutral” zone such as health care. I think that this experience has opened my eyes to that. When I become a provider, I intend on continuing my research and focus on slowly eliminating racial discrimination in health care.
What does “community-engaged” mean to you, and why do you think this type of research is important?
One of the most important aspects of community engagement to me is the concept of working with the community, not for the community. And in order to do that, it is important to build trusting and meaningful relationships with members of the community. In terms of my new project, this research is extremely important because based on the trends of COVID-19, social distancing will be mandatory for several years at least. So that means our students may not be able to meet with their community partners face-to-face very often, if at all. This can definitely prevent the formation of meaningful relationships. Also, since they are not directly cooperating and interacting with the community anymore, the students don’t have the opportunity to build those career skills, instead, their service projects are just like ordinary school projects.
What’s the plan now? How will you build on your fellowship experience?
I will be continuing to work on my project concerning the effects of online community engagement on the relationship between community members and the students. However, once that project is completed, I intend on continuing my initial project. In addition to that, the current state of events has made me think of more possible research topics that I would love to invest some time in. In these special times and political climate, there’s so much to learn. And who knows, in the future, I may decide to go into research as a career instead of medicine!