Local kids teach Penn grad what's important

Jamal Harris (C'98) always knew he wanted to pursue a career in medicine. But it took a bunch of West Philadelphia schoolchildren to show him that what he really wanted to do was promote health, not cure sickness.

As a result, the student who entered Penn with his sights set on being a doctor will pursue a career in public health instead, starting with a job in the Department of Health and Human Services this summer.

The children in question are at Shaw Middle School, whose science classes include a curriculum called Project Health. Project Health is a collaborative program between Shaw and Penn aimed at promoting better health among urban youth through education.

As Harris discovered, though, that education runs both ways. "Keeping healthy doesn't just mean keeping free of disease," he said. "Working on Project Health, I learned how big other factors, especially societal factors, figure into the decisions people make."

Take eating, for example.

"If we gave them hypothetical situations, the students would choose healthy food," he said. "But Tony [one of the sixth-graders] would come in with a honey bun for breakfast, and all they'd have for lunch were Cheez Doodles. A lot of this had to do with the things that were available around them."

The effects of outside forces on a person's health sometimes showed up in surprising ways. "One student had an asthmatic attack thinking about his brother," whom the student had seen being beaten up by another youth, he said. "That was an eye-opener."

What Harris learned in his years with Project Health also improved his own research at Penn. One research paper for this year focused on ethnic differences in rates of lung cancer. "My work at Shaw helped make my paper make sense," he said.

Harris' experience has also made him a proponent of service learning, in which faculty research and undergraduate education are tied to identifying and solving community problems. But it has also led him to realize that the community must take the lead.

"Presenting people with choices is more effective than saying 'This is good, this is bad,'" he said. "It also works better when you understand what issues are relevant to the community as opposed to deciding them for yourself.

"With children specifically, in order to be effective there has to be a level of trust developed before they're going to pay attention to what you say."

As with children, so with the community as a whole: "I think that sometimes in our attempt to make things grand" in terms of research, he said, "we sometimes overlook community needs and ideas, and we need to be as vigilant as possible to make sure we are paying attention to them."

Originally published on May 28, 1998