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Looking to her clerkship years, a med student learns about New Haven

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2015 - Spring


Still in her first year of medical school, Whitney Fu was looking ahead to her third year, when she'd be seeing patients during her clinical clerkships. And that raised a question that troubled her.

“Given that a lot of people I would see in the hospital would be from New Haven, it didn't make sense to me to practice medicine without any understanding of the city and community and the challenges people face on a daily basis,” she said. “Yale exists in such a tight bubble sometimes, and I felt I had no understanding of New Haven.”

Around that time a serendipitous email landed in her inbox and by June she had secured a Yale President's Public Service Fellowship and was working out of a second-floor office in City Hall. While most rising second-years spend their summer‒the last big chunk of free time they'll have in medical school‒in a lab, in the library working on their thesis, or on a research project in the developing world, Fu was working on the New Haven City Transformation Plan. The plan's goal, Fu said, is to coordinate the efforts of the city's more than 360 nonprofits in eight target areas that range from job creation to economic development to health care to literacy. The idea was to bring the nonprofits out of their silos to tackle problems “in a holistic and integrated way,” she said.

“The ideal example would be if a patient goes to the HAVEN Free Clinic for diabetes management, somebody there would find out that she also has trouble getting enough to eat for her kids. They would have a system where they could refer her to a food assistance program. At the same time, let's say they find out this woman has a child with a learning disability, they would be able to refer her to a clinic or an organization that provides services. Instead of all of these groups working by themselves, it would be a holistic network where people address the multifactorial issues in their lives,” Fu said. “That's the dream.”

This summer fellowship would seem ideal for a Dartmouth graduate who double majored in biology and anthropology. “I did the science of life and the study of life itself, what influences people's lives and behavior.” After her graduation in 2013 she spent a gap year in New York City, serving with Americorps. She was assigned to Powerplay NYC, a nonprofit program that empowers teenage girls through sports and academic enrichment programs.

This past summer, as a presidential fellow in New Haven, she learned firsthand about neighborhoods that may be just names to most Yalies‒the Hill, Newhallville, Dwight, Fair Haven, Quinnipiac Heights. Working under Martha Okafor, Ph.D., the city's administrator for community services, Fu helped organize meetings with community groups, from management teams to youth organizers to church leaders. “We asked them, ‘What are the priorities in your lives? What are the changes you want to see?’ The answers depended on the neighborhood and who we were with.” A group of Spanish-speaking mothers from Fair Haven, for example, asked for classes in English as a Second Language, assistance with complicated housing application paperwork, and more access to day care facilities so they could work full-time jobs.

The culmination of her efforts came in July, with a community expo that brought together between 350 and 400 city residents and Mayor Toni Harp, city officials, community leaders, and nonprofit leaders. Together they looked at 3- x4-foot posters that listed issues in each of the plan's eight target areas, along with strategies to address them.

After her fellowship ended in August, she spent time at home in Del Mar, Calif., visiting her father, a research scientist in industry, her mother, a real estate broker, and her high school senior brother. Back in New Haven, Fu still spends 19 hours a week on the city project as a student intern. The Yale system's flexibility, she said, makes that possible.

In the short term, she's learned a lot about the city and its relationship with Yale. Yale's efforts on the city's behalf, she noted, often have unintended consequences. “They might make sense economically, but raise issues like gentrification.” But she also sees other efforts that are “inspiring,” like New Haven Promise, which helps students pay for college.

Whether she'll integrate what she's learned into her studies or career plans is an open question. She has yet to choose a specialty or settle on a research project for her thesis. For the time being, though, the lure of her work in the city remains strong.

“I didn't think I was going to do a lot of community work after my Americorps year,” Fu said. “But I keep getting drawn back in.”