Expanding access to health care
From training with the Obama Foundation to connecting with teens in Back of the Yards, Niehoff alumna Karen Aguirre is dedicated to creating better opportunities for health care
By Lauren Krause (BA '10)
Get involved with social justice in health care. That is Karen Aguirre’s (BS ’15) motto—and her advice to current nursing students. “Sometimes an issue is overlooked because of the complex problem-solving that it comes with,” she says.
To hone her own problem-solving skills, Aguirre, a graduate of Loyola's Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, attended an Obama Foundation training day in Chicago that connected the city’s youth with leaders and community members. “For me, this is a very proud moment," she says of her experience. "I’ve been taught how to talk about social issues so it’s a great pleasure to give my knowledge and share what I’ve learned along the way.”
That way of thinking is exactly how Aguirre was able to secure Loyola's Set the World on Fire Award, an annual honor presented to an alumnus/a who has contributed to the success of Loyola’s diverse student population academically, spiritually, culturally, and professionally. It also recognizes those who have committed themselves to embracing diversity and social justice after graduation.
Making a difference
Post-Loyola, Aguirre served as a program coordinator at the University of Michigan under their Health Management and Policy Department. Here, Aguirre worked with 23 underrepresented students over the summer by offering research consultation to student projects and ensuring students had a positive experience at their job site. They also offered programming every Friday to different health site visits so the students could get a grasp of Michigan health systems and the marginalized communities in need of better access to care.
No job, however, comes without its challenges. Aguirre oversaw many internships in different locations, including students who drove multiple hours a day to their job site. “This was crucial for a successful program,” she says. “I think it is important to expand beyond our comfort zones in order to do impactful work regardless of the distance.”
In preparing for her career, Aguirre credits Loyola for giving her opportunities. Through the Multicultural Affairs Office and the Health Systems Management program, Aguirre learned to use her degree to service those who need better access to health care. “We were motivated to take service projects in nearby neighborhoods, which aided my understanding of why it is important to work with communities who have less physical and financial access to medical care,” Aguirre says.
After spending some time in Michigan, Aguirre returned to Chicago to focus on her own South Side neighborhood, Back of the Yards. She continued her community work into earning her second degree, a Master of Public Health in Health Policy at University of Illinois at Chicago. Through a fellowship, Aguirre created LUCHA—Latinix Unidos para Cambiar Healthcare Access—which brings people together to create better health care access. Offering courses on health disparities in Back of the Yards, Aguirre was able to connect with high school students interested in a future in medicine.
“I also used the seed grant to fund school buses that took us to trips to the University of Chicago Medicine, Rush University Medical Center, and Loyola,” she says. “This program provided an emphasis on a college education while allowing students to meet [current] college students and learn about clinical and non-clinical health career paths.”
Aguirre hopes to continue her advocacy for equitable health care services through programs like LUCHA and working with groups like the Obama Foundation.
“It’s so important to stay passionate about health equity; this is what makes individuals feel the need to do more when faced with injustices,” she says.