Second-year MPH students at the Brown University School of Public Health are actively engaged in internships and projects through the Applied Practice Experience (APE) program. These opportunities lead them to diverse agencies and organizations in Rhode Island and across the globe. Our Student Spotlight series this summer follows their stories.
In the heart of Providence, Rhode Island, Azia Johnson is making her summer count for something big. As a compassionate and driven young scholar, Azia is conducting her Applied Practice Experience (APE) at the Lifespan Community Health Institute: Connect for Health, where she stands as a lifeline for families in need.
Her mission is clear and vital: to bridge the gap between patients and the necessities for good health. With a focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), she ensures that those who qualify can put food on their tables.
“We maintain a list of patients from our clinic and reach out to them by phone,” Azia said. “During these calls, we ask whether they’re currently receiving SNAP benefits. If they’re not, we offer support in filling out the applications, especially if they’re unsure or hesitant to do it themselves.”
Azia also assists with SNAP recertification. This procedure mandates patients to periodically verify that their income aligns with SNAP-benefit guidelines. Azia provides comprehensive guidance throughout the recertification process, ensuring uninterrupted access to the assistance they require.
Azia has her hands full — the guidelines for receiving SNAP benefits frequently undergo changes, making it harder for applicants to keep up with the requirements. “There’s also been a shift towards using online portals for SNAP applications,” she said. “While this might be convenient for some, it poses a challenge for older adults who may lack experience with technology.”
Compounding the technological hurdle is the reduction in the SNAP allotment, or the amount of benefits people receive. Azia also noted that the Pandemic Electronics Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, which extended supplementary aid to many families, concluded its operation in March. “SNAP benefits for many people fell significantly,” she said. “This reduction has put a strain on people, and many are now relying on food pantries for additional resources since their SNAP allotments have been stretched to the limit.”
While pursuing her undergraduate studies at Providence College, Azia opted for a concentration in health policy and management. “It seemed like a good fit at the time,” she said. “But as I got deeper into my studies, I realized it was more focused on the business administration side of health policy and lacked the interpersonal aspect I was seeking.” Yet, her minor in public and community health services showed her another way. “It allowed me to engage in hands-on, face-to-face volunteer work,” she said. “During that time, I was introduced to the concept of social determinants of health and became committed to addressing health equity and disparities.”
As graduation approached, Azia’s interests became clear. “Health policy and management ultimately led me to the realization that public health was what I really wanted to do,” she said. “It helped me realize how important social determinants of health and health equity are to communities.”
Azia is a member of the very first cohort of Rhode Island Scholars in the Health Equity Scholars program. These scholarships are awarded to R.I. residents accepted to Brown’s MPH program who agree to remain in the state to conduct public health work after graduation. When she joined Brown for her MPH, Azia saw the opportunity to learn public health while engaging in field work and research.
“For me, the decision to focus on Providence was a natural one,” she said. “I was born and raised here and attended school here, so I have a lifelong connection to the city.”
Food insecurity is a significant issue in Providence and Azia feels a call to address this problem. “Good nutrition is essential for overall health,” she said. “Many neighborhoods in Providence lack access to fresh and affordable produce and this exacerbates the health challenges many people face. The convenience of cheap and processed food in ‘obesogenic environments’ can lead to chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, those in poverty often have limited choices and may experience long-term health consequences.”
Azia underscores that children bear a substantial brunt of food insecurity, and early-life experiences can have far-reaching implications for their health. “Core cities in Rhode Island often have high rates of child poverty, which correlates with food insecurity and other health challenges,” she said. “I find it sad that circumstances beyond their control can shape the trajectory of childrens’ health and future.”
By focusing her efforts in Providence, Azia hopes to make a meaningful impact on the lives of those facing food insecurity and related health challenges. “My goal is to contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty and its associated health outcomes, particularly for children, by addressing the root causes and providing support through community-based interventions,” she said.
Post-graduation, Azia envisions a career in research and program development. “I’m interested in creating programs that connect people to the resources they need,” she said. “I enjoy solving problems and finding solutions that simplify processes and make it easier for people to access essential services. I want to be involved in designing and implementing programs that address real-life challenges.”