Blazing a Trail to Health Equity

From Chicago to farm life and back, Olivia Velasquez is no stranger to twisting paths and long journeys. That includes the extended road trips she would often make with her family just to receive basic health care.

She now hopes to close the gaps in access to health care as she hones her voice as a leader.

Velasquez, a first-year student in Rush University’s Health Systems Management Program after graduating from Rush’s Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences Program in spring 2018, recently talked about her road back to Chicago, finding a home at Rush and her motivation for pursuing a career in health care. 

Tell us about your background.

I was born in Chicago, and soon after that my parents decided to move to a less populated place to raise their family. So we went to Mississippi, which was the start of a unique upbringing. I grew up in the countryside with farm animals and everything. When it was time for me to attend school, I moved to northwest Indiana to stay with extended family. Then I finally moved with my family back to Illinois in Lansing, where I went to junior high and high school.

I was an only child, so my parents were hesitant to let me go away to a traditional four-year university. And I didn’t have much of a choice considering they were my source of support! So I started at a community college, South Suburban College in South Holland, Illinois. It ended up being a good thing because even though I knew I was interested in health care, I wasn’t sure about where I fit in. Going to a community college allowed me to dip my toes in and see if I was comfortable with subjects like science and psychology.

I got my associate degree in biology and then came across the College of Health Sciences and the Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences Program at Rush, which was fairly new. I reached out to Rush, got some information and decided that was the place for me.

How did Rush help you find your niche in health care?

They provide students with opportunities to shadow people in areas they might be interested in. Ultimately I fell in love with clinical management and the operations side of health care, where I feel like I’ll be able to affect a large scale of patients and their families.

One great thing that Rush did to foster that was connecting me with the administrators and faculty in the Health Systems Management Program while I was an undergraduate. I expressed my interest in the HSM program by the fall term before I graduated from the bachelor’s program, and that gave me an opportunity to start an internship in health systems management just to really make sure it was what I wanted. That really served as a launchpad to deciding on my career path.

What was that internship experience like?

My first hands-on experience was working for the Building Healthy Urban Communities Project here at Rush, which educates care coordinators on how to understand their patients better and understand signs of illness in order to properly develop a health plan. I was able to see, from the administrative side, how much work goes into piloting these types of programs and how they affect patients long term.

That led to another project at a pilot program for the U.S. Cooperative for International Patient Programs. They assessed not only if international patients are getting the care they need but if they were also being treated well while they were receiving care here in the U.S. We worked with 10 institutions across the U.S. that agreed to share their patient survey data to create a benchmark and decide which institutions were doing well with taking care of international patients and which ones needed work.

What drew you to health care?

It’s always been a little personal to me. Growing up in a rural community, I saw my family have to travel long distances for health care. I was just a little girl, so I really didn’t know what we were doing. But my family would tell me grandpa needs to get his checkup, and we have to take a road trip for him to receive care because it wasn’t immediately available. So I remember packing up for the day, packing our lunch and bringing along my toys to go north with my family for their hospital visits.

I wanted to understand about the illnesses my family dealt with and the things that can be changed to help other families access care. I realized I didn’t have to be a doctor to make a difference in a patient’s life.

Why did you pick Rush to pursue your goal?

Already having been at Rush as an undergraduate, I had an up-close opportunity to do my homework and find the best fit. I already knew the culture felt right. Everyone was so supportive and really wanted to see me succeed and grow.

I compared other programs, but I was already flourishing at Rush and knew Rush’s Health Systems Management Program is highly ranked. That carried a lot of influence and made it an easy choice to stay home.

Are you working on any interesting projects now?

For my first-year internship, I’m working with Dr. Sheila Dugan at Rush in the Office of Women’s Professional Advancement. I really love the idea of evening the playing field, whether it be for underserved populations or for women at a disadvantage for advancement in health care. From an administrative side, I have the opportunity to help the department grow from the ground up. We’re going to do a salary review to assess equal pay, and I’ve been able to meet with women leaders who are interested in mentoring.

How do you see your career playing out?

I don’t want to put anything in stone because I’m finding more and more that people often end up being in positions they love but never saw coming. But generally I see myself working in a hospital system, whether it’s an academic hospital or elsewhere. I see myself as a leader.

I’d really love to lead a large program as a director or in a similar position, and also have the opportunity to give back and mentor just as others have mentored me.

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar path?

Don’t let anyone discourage you. Do your research and reach out to people who can help you see if the career you’re looking at is for you. If it’s not, then at least you know what you don’t want to do. That’s an important step to help you get closer to your dream job.

Watch Velasquez and some of her classmates talk about national case competitions they participate in across the country.