Black experiences in health education: OT Prof. Regina Parnell

We asked Black students, alumni, faculty and staff in the Wayne State University Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences to share – in their own words – challenges they've faced in professional health education or clinical practice. 

Regina ParnellRegina Parnell '07

Hometown: Chicago
WSU degree: PhD in medical sociology
Current position: WSU Applebaum Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy

I grew up in the inner city. The small number of friends who went to college were first-generation college students – very few completed undergrad.

Ironically, I attended private schools for my undergrad (BS '81, Loyola University) and graduate degrees (MOT '87, Rush University). I am a proud Wayne State University alum, for this is where I earned my doctorate in medical sociology in 2007 and where I was exposed to the most diverse academic environment I have ever experienced.

Now that I work at WSU, I enjoy each and every student! As the OT admissions coordinator, I’m privileged to interact with the students from the onset of their Master of Occupational Therapy program experiences until the time they graduate. It’s so much fun to see the growth and maturity as they progress through the curriculum, gradually becoming skilled, confident and prepared for entry-level practice. It is really a joy to meet them years later as successful clinicians. Wayne State OT grads work throughout the tri-county area and are great ambassadors for our program.

I was inspired to become an occupational therapist because I always enjoyed taking science courses and discussions on medical topics. Occupational therapy was just perfect in that it allowed me to integrate my academic interests with a lesser-known but essential clinical profession. Occupational therapists are tasked with creatively helping people regain their engagement in meaningful life activities following a serious health condition. I get to use biology, psychology and assorted media in skilled ways to help ill individuals restore their health – mind, body and soul. What’s not to love!?

As a child of the 1970s going off to a private college, I was often the only Black student in the classroom. Fortunately, I quickly adjusted to my new social norm with support from a small contingency of Black peers and a couple of Black professors. This experience ignited within me a passion to provide mentorship for young Black teens interested in pursuing college despite having limited academic and social preparation. I subsequently worked with inner-city youth from Chicago throughout my college years and beyond.

I distinctly remember working at a small company during my first college summer, alongside the company president's daughter. We were the only young temporary clerical help and thus often spent lunchtime together talking. It was obvious I was the first Black person with whom she had spent extended time.

At the end of the summer, the company president commented that he liked my work and that I should consider staying on as a clerk at the company, as his daughter (who was given a summer farewell party at work) was clearly headed back to college. I laughed at his comment and replied, “I am going back to college, like your (white) daughter.” My family and my faith would see to that!

I think this sums up many of the encounters that Black people have, especially those who are trying to advance themselves in traditional ways. Often placed in the position of being the “first” means culturally sensitive mentorship is rarely available. I hope that my students and colleagues find me approachable when it comes to discussions about race, disparities, social inequities, and myriad ways to increase cultural competence for students, clients and peers.

An anchor in urban health care 
The Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences is built on more than 100 years of tradition and innovation in the heart of Detroit. We have grown deep roots in our city, harnessing its powerhouse hospital systems and community service organizations as vibrant, real-world training grounds for students, with an ongoing focus on social justice in health care. And our research at all levels – from undergraduates to veteran faculty members – translates into creative solutions for healthier communities.

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering approximately 350 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to more than 25,000 students.

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