Alumni Spotlight: Andrea Heyward on Community Health Workers and Health Equity
Meet Andrea Heyward
HBS alum, Andrea Heyward, MHS ’10, reflects on discovering her interests in program planning and evaluation, navigating the post-graduate transition, and advancing health equity through her role as director of the University of South Carolina’s Community Health Worker Institute.
- Hometown: Beaufort, South Carolina
- Graduation Year: 2010
- Program: MHS in Health Education and Health Communication (now the MSPH in Health Education and Health Communication)
- Fun Fact: "I'm a native of the South Carolina Sea Islands. I am proud of my strong roots and Gullah Geechee heritage."
What sparked your interest in public health?
I always say I became interested in public health because my friend was diagnosed with HIV. In a way, that began my informal training in public health.
Through the University of South Carolina, I was able to engage with the student health service center and be trained as a peer educator. I spent the remainder of my college career working with this organization that was all about sexual health and violence prevention. Although there wasn’t a public health major at the university at that time, I knew wholeheartedly that the space of advocacy, prevention, and education was something that I really felt passionate about.
Reflections on HBS and the Bloomberg School
How did you find your way to the Department of Health, Behavior and Society?
Once the spark ignited, I was able to benefit from the mentorship of some really great faculty who were all public health professionals. That helped me in really researching different programs of interest to me.
I was very interested in studying health education and health communication at Hopkins. I hadn't seen a lot of other programs merge a program that focused on prevention education with program management and communication. It just was this convening of so many diverse experiences—personally, academically, and professionally.
When you reflect on your time at the Bloomberg School, what are some standout experiences?
I just loved being able to engage with so many different people with such a diversity of experiences, academic backgrounds, and thoughts. I think that really prepped me to go out into the world as a public health professional.
Learning how to really be attentive and tap into diverse thoughts based on experiences and expertise is something I felt like I really got grounded in at Hopkins. I also think I was pushed to think beyond whatever box I came into the program with and to think more broadly.
For example, I'm from South Carolina. While at Hopkins, I got to be in an area that was so different from where I grew up and to learn about the issues that were experienced by the community that's local to the University. I was able to think about addressing issues, not just from personal experiences, but by tapping in to learn and engage with the community that's really impacted.
Through opportunities to engage with local students and community members that had experienced gun violence or gang violence and all those things that I hadn't directly experienced growing up, I really broadened my perspective of what public health meant and how many different areas of focus there are.
What was it like to navigate the post-graduate transition after leaving the Bloomberg School?
My program required completing a practicum. I completed mine at an organization in my home state: the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. I ended up spending the first eight years of my career at the very same organization where I completed my graduate practicum. It was a great transition for me because while I was completing my practicum, I was still able to really get mentorship from faculty and staff at Hopkins while I also was able to get the professional experience.
Along the way, I learned about what I didn't want to do, and then I was able to get more curious about other areas that I wanted to explore.
I started out my career thinking that I really wanted to laser focus on adolescent health and sexual health. Through the program and my experience working at a nonprofit for so many years, I learned that I had a curiosity about what happens behind the scenes.
I never would have imagined that I would be so excited about what I learned about program management, evaluation, and communication strategies. I never even thought I would be curious about policy. Those are all things that I didn't go into my career thinking would have such a huge impact, but now they play such a huge piece in my what I do today.
As someone who works in community health but isn't in direct service, I'm still being able to see how all these tools work to change systems and how to support communities, especially when it comes to health access inequity.
Community Health Workers and Health Equity
Since 2019, you’ve worked for the Community Health Worker Institute (CHWI), an organization that supports and champions the community health worker workforce. Would you speak more about your role and impact?
For the last three years, I've had the privilege of working for the Center for Community Health Alignment (CCHA). We're a part of the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, where we have three core program initiatives, all of which are centered around increasing equity and health and racial equity.
One of our initiatives works very closely with the immigrant and Latino population here in the state. The second looks at meaningful community engagement and how to work alongside communities to co-create strategies to improve access to health care and resources, with a focus on health and racial equity.
I have the honor of serving with an amazing team through the Community Health Worker Institute, which is the third part of the work that we do at the CCHA. As the director of the Community Health Worker Institute (CHWI), I get to support a team, focusing across five core areas.
The first is community health worker training. We offer core competency training and specialty training for community health workers in the state of South Carolina, helping to train and build up the workforce and their capacity to serve communities.
Another element is technical assistance. I've been supporting organizations and implementing best practices and evidence-based initiatives for the full course of my career. This has been a unique opportunity to use those skills to support organizations that hire community health workers and make sure that they're integrated with best practices––clinical, community-based, and public health.
We also think about leadership and workforce development for community health workers. We think about ways to retain community health workers.
The fourth is really looking at impact. We know coming health workers are trusted members of communities. They are frontline public health workers, who are able to act as bridges between resources and the community that needs them. Even more than that, we know that there's a lot of data to support their impact on improving health outcomes across the board. We’re being intentional about having more evidence to build upon an already huge evidence base to show that there's really value in the community health worker role.
And of course, no program exists without a focus on sustainability, and so we spend quite a bit of time really looking at some more sustainable financial models for community health work in the world of public health. We want to make sure that there's always a workforce ready, trained, and able to be activated when we have these huge public issues come arise (i.e., a global pandemic).
What are some of the day-to-day responsibilities of your position?
As the director, I do a lot of the day-to-day strategic thinking about how all of our programs really align with our five core areas. I also push to expand our network, whether that be working with other states that are starting community health worker initiatives or providing support in the last year to expand our services beyond South Carolina to support organizations regionally and now nationally.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped your work and role?
Community health workers are so used to being resourceful and addressing barriers. They were able to activate networks to really support how to be present for the communities that were being hardest hit or impacted by the pandemic.
Our mission and our vision has always been to work alongside communities to help address health inequities and racial justice. So for us, the core of our mission has remained the same.
I think what's been interesting is seeing such a light shined on the community health worker workforce in general and acknowledging the strengths that lie within to help address these social determinants of health. It's kind of like this little dance that you do: seeing awareness be heightened and then seeing the dollars going that way. Going back to sustainability, we want to ensure that these resources and services don't go away when the light isn't shining so brightly on the workforce. We want to create awareness of the value add of having this as a sustainable role within systems and in communities to really continue to have that impact.
Advice for Public Health Students
What advice do you have for current and prospective public health students?
I think it’s important to be very intentional about spending the time to explore things that interest you. There are so many different avenues that you can take when you think about public health broadly. When you're curious enough to sit and explore your own interests, I think it gives you a good sense of where your strengths can really have a great impact.
For me, as a director now of an organization like the Community Health Worker Institute, being curious helped me to really learn that I had skills that went beyond direct service. Program management and being passionate about equity are things that really led my curiosity in this direction.
This interview has been edited and compressed. Views expressed are the subject's own.