Honors student Lawreta Kankam fell in love with public health in high school, while working for an urban farming nonprofit in Worcester, Massachusetts.
She enrolled in the nonprofit Regional Environmental Council’s YouthGROW program the summer after completing her first year of high school – and her first year in the United States, after immigrating from Ghana.
“I wanted to get out and meet people and make friends,” she says.
She found great satisfaction in planting, weeding and harvesting organic vegetables at YouthGROW’s two organic farms, and then selling them from its mobile market van to people in “food deserts” in the city.
Over the years, she moved up from youth leader to junior staff to mobile market manager, even as she began studying public health and taking pre-med classes at UMass Lowell, while also minoring in biomedical technology so she could be “well-rounded.”
“My whole life, I’ve wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “But real health is more than medicine; it’s prevention. YouthGROW really influenced my decision to major in public health instead of biology or chemistry.”
One of the sponsors of YouthGROW is UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester, and as part of the program, she learned about UMass Chan Medical School and its Baccalaureate M.D. Pathway Program, which prepares UMass undergrads from underrepresented groups to succeed in medical school.
She applied as a college sophomore – and was accepted. Now a senior, she has won provisional admission to the medical school. She plans to work in emergency medicine or another field that will allow her to expand access to health care for underserved groups.
Her junior year, she asked her Honors College advisors about research opportunities and they connected her with Prof. Dan Berlowitz, who had just started at UMass Lowell as chair of the Department of Public Health and was seeking research assistants.
Working with him and other faculty, Kankam analyzed data from the Boston Puerto Rican Health Study on barriers to accessing treatment for chronic high blood pressure. She will present the results – that cost was the biggest barrier – at the 2021 American Heart Association conference. She is continuing to do research with Berlowitz that will become her honors capstone project.
Another favorite professor is Asst. Prof. Angela Wangari Walter, who teaches Social Determinants of Health.
“That was the hardest public health class I’ve taken, but it was so good,” she says. “It had a big impact.”
One thing she learned was that more education correlates to better health. To celebrate her 19th birthday, Kankam decided to provide scholarships for a few students in her grandmother’s village in Ghana to go on to high school. While tuition is free, she explains, most high schools in Ghana are boarding schools because not all villages have their own high schools.
So she set up the Nana Konadu Dankwah Foundation, named for her grandmother, to provide scholarships of about $1,000 a year for room, board, school uniforms, books and supplies to hard-working students who otherwise could not afford to attend high school in a bigger town. Then, she set aside all the money from one of her three summer jobs to fund them.
“I want to solve problems before they start happening,” she says. “I knew that if I could provide a scholarship to one kid to go to school, they’d make healthier decisions for themselves and then teach their children and their grandchildren.”