PITTSFIELD – Fifty years ago (during the population boom following WWII), growing concern over the supply of healthcare workers led Congress to create Area Health Education Centers (AHEC), a federal initiative to expand the number of healthcare providers in rural areas through education opportunities and connections to the community. In a bout of auspicious timing, Berkshire Area Health Education Center is resuming its in-person Health Scholars’ Program in collaboration with Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield.
AHEC Scholars is a year-long program designed to improve allied health students’ practice readiness skills. Students (including nurses, physical therapist assistants, respiratory care, and community health workers) interested in supplementing their education train side-by-side with health care professionals and community members to gain additional knowledge and experience in addressing community needs. Students currently enrolled in a health degree or certificate program have until September 14 to sign up for the program, which is offered free through a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), USDHHS and administered through the MassAHEC Network, a program of UMass Medical School.
“The opportunity to work with professionals outside the traditional classroom, the networking, and the interdisciplinary skills that support patient-centered care [are just some of the] many reasons to take advantage of the Health Scholars’ Program,” said Berkshire AHEC Center Director Sheila Dargie.
Over the course of the year, students experience 40 hours of hands-on service learning and 40 hours of lectures on a variety of topics including social determinants of health, behavioral health integration, and emerging trends. By working in the community, students develop an awareness of the economic and cultural barriers in health care delivery and gain a better understanding of the complex needs of rural and underserved communities. Dargie said participation “can really elevate a student resume for graduate school applications or job opportunities.” In addition, Berkshire AHEC is always looking for presenters, learning opportunities and internships in the community.
Locally, the Health Scholars’ Program is offered in collaboration with Berkshire Community College, where students have access to internships and job placement, providing an important pipeline for area healthcare providers. According to 1Berkshire, healthcare is the largest industry sector and cluster in the county by number of employees, representing nearly 13.5% of all jobs. With its work primarily happening behind the scenes, this critical organization may be unfamiliar to many. According to one student, “The program provided an outside perspective of medicine, which was not entirely clear in the classroom. Discussion of social injustice in medicine in terms of race, wealth, zip code, and sexual identity put the meaning of my schooling into context.”
The Health Scholars’ Program runs bi-monthly from September 2021–May 2022 on Wednesdays from 3:30–5:30 p.m. The program may transition online depending on CDC COVID guidelines. For more information, call 413-842-5160 or visit berkshireahec.org.