Coming of age in Troy, Alabama, a small town in the southeast corner of the state, Keith Elder witnessed first-hand how many black men were living in poverty and in poor health. He could not understand why there was such a disconnect between these men, and the health care they so desperately needed. Driven by this deep concern, Keith chose to focus on health and medicine when he entered college at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB).
An Evolving Education about Health Disparities
At UAB, Keith’s faculty mentors suggested that he take classes in public health. Those classes in epidemiology and health policy resonated strongly with Keith, and soon he was out in the Birmingham community conducting health assessments and participating in community health fairs. “We addressed health disparities in the places where people lived and worked,” Keith says.
The public health classes and hands-on community-level fieldwork strengthened Keith’s interest in pursuing research on African American men’s health disparities – in particular, understanding how African-American men can manage chronic diseases and engage in the health care system. And he attributes the one-on-one time with faculty mentors and advisors, as an undergraduate student transitioning to graduate school, to sharpening the focus of his academic and professional career.
Forging a Professional Pathway
When Keith began in academia, not many organizations, if any, were supporting projects in African American men’s health. He applied numerous times for funding from different entities, yet to little avail. But after attending a New Connections Research & Coaching Clinic, Keith began to gain more traction in his research. He was encouraged by colleagues and peers at the Coaching Clinic to submit a research proposal in African-American men’s health for funding from New Connections – and was subsequently awarded a New Connections grant. Keith considers the New Connections grant as the impetus for helping him hone his research focus and secure additional funding from other organizations. “The New Connections grant gave me an opportunity to collaborate with scholars from across the U.S. to address the plight of African American men and their health outcomes,” he says.
Keith attributes his participation in the New Connections network as integral to his growth from a non-tenured assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Public Health, to associate professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, to becoming professor and chair of the Department of Health Management and Policy at the College of Public Health and Social Justice, University of St. Louis, where he works today. “Having a support network of peers who can help you is not commonplace in academia,” says Keith, “but having the kind of space provided by New Connections is paramount to the success of many scholars, and can be life-changing.”