At freshman orientation in 2012, MCB concentrator Jack Huang ’16 was understandably overwhelmed. After a flurry of five-minute presentations from seemingly every agency and acronym on campus—HUHS, HUPD, OSAPR—“I still had no idea how to access healthcare at college,” he admits.
“For many students, college is the first time they are managing their own health care,” says Huang. “The entire process was quite daunting for me, especially since HUHS [Harvard University Health Services] seemed at first like a faceless institution.” After orientation, Huang approached the HUHS presenter, who happened to be his designated primary care physician and was able to answer Huang’s questions. Concerned that his peers remained similarly baffled, Huang continued to meet with HUHS staff to discuss ways to improve communication between HUHS and the student community.
This dialogue inspired Harvard HealthPALs—Health Peer Advisors & Liaisons—a team of outgoing, informed undergraduates who now serve as ambassadors between HUHS and Harvard students. Huang and HUHS collaborated over the course of a year to recruit, train, and deploy the first cohort of 30 HealthPALs in the fall of 2013. Since then, the organization has flourished, with 3-5 representatives in each undergraduate House. Each HealthPAL is well versed in the Harvard healthcare system, trained in first aid and CPR, and equipped with single-doses of common medications. Individually, HealthPALs act as good neighbors whom peers can approach for first-aid fix-ups or questions and concerns about college health. As a team, HealthPALs coordinate health outreach and education initiatives, maintaining a conversation between students and administration that “enables both to work together as partners for a healthier campus,” says Huang.
Huang considers HealthPALs’ annual flu outreach campaign “perhaps our most significant contribution to the health of the campus community.” Through posters, email, social media, and outreach events, HealthPALs successfully doubled the number of flu shots administered in House vaccination clinics from 800 to 1600 annually. Thanks to surveys conducted at each clinic, HealthPALs accumulates data on effective outreach tools and student health habits in order to continue to improve student health and health services at Harvard.
In February 2015, Huang stepped down as Head HealthPAL in order to train the next generation of leadership. “While it was difficult for me to let go,” he reflects, “I knew that for the group to endure beyond my time at Harvard, I had to let others take the helm.” He continued to serve as a HealthPAL for Eliot House until his graduation in May.
After another year at Harvard conducting health policy research, Huang will embark on his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania where he hopes to build on his HealthPALs experience: “Looking back, I could never have envisioned that the conversation with my HUHS doctor would have resulted in starting a group that became the center of my college experience. Looking forward, I hope to continue pursuing my passion for bringing communities and health systems together, whether through healthcare management, health policy, or some other path that remains to be discovered.” Jack Huang is a Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator. Read more about the exciting and unusual accomplishments of other MCB and Neurobiology concentrators in MCB’s Undergraduate Initiatives series!
Learn more about Harvard HealthPALs