Saffiyah Coker ’20 and Sidnie Kulik ’21 joined high school students from across the country this past weekend at Harvard’s annual Global Health and Leadership High School Student Conference. In addition to hearing from prominent industry leaders, each conducted a community project and participated in a case study competition. The conference theme for 2019 was “Cities and Health.” Coker examined obstacles to mental health treatment in lower-income communities, particularly those predominantly made up of people of color. Kulik studied the detrimental effects of electronic cigarettes.
Coker said, “As a black person, I’ve seen many instances in which mental health is ignored and kind of pushed aside, and that’s really damaging.” Her mother teaches at a juvenile detention center in Roslindale, where she works with many teens who have mental health and/or behavioral issues. “Kids aren’t getting the help they need when they’re young and issues are exacerbated,” Coker says. Her project explored the correlation she perceives between mental health challenges for children of color living in lower-income communities like Dorchester, where she lives, and the surrounding stigma, lack of awareness, and lack of access to treatment.
“When I started to think of prevention or intervention, I wanted to find something universal that we all have easy access to, something we could use for the rest of our lives. That’s where positive affirmation came in,” Coker says. Her parents, both educators, raised their children to celebrate their capabilities. Coker realizes how fortunate she is to have inherited “those tools to combat those negative stressors in our lives.” She wants to pass on that power of positivity to children in her own community. At Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, her pre-K to grade 1 alma mater, and school where both of her parents have worked, she has a vision for making that happen.
On April 11, Coker set up stations all around Nobles for students to write positive affirmations to share with children in grades 3-5 from her old school. “If kids learn these tools from an early age, they can grow up to be stronger, more successful, happier people.” She credits her mom as the driving force behind her efforts, and being her “other half”—as well as coming up with the name for her initiative, “Postmarked with Love.” Coker plans to deliver the messages with other Nobles community service students, and to expand the initiative to other cities like Brooklyn and the Bronx. “I’m incredibly excited about the future of this project. I want it to be big—all over the place!”
“This project has taught me a lot about what each of us is capable of. It’s junior year, and my parents told me to jump on any opportunities I had for college—but this has become so much more than that,” Coker said.
Kulik, who focused on the effects of e-cigarettes, says, “I’ve always been interested in science and medicine, especially biology, because I want to see how the body works and understand how to cure various health issues. I also enjoy doing community service. Global health combines both.”
Kulik chose the topic of e-cigarettes as a rising issue, especially for the youth market that so many manufacturers target. “I wanted to address it because a lot of people think it’s totally fine. Since it’s a newer product, few know its long-term effects,” says Kulik. “98.7% of e-cigarettes have nicotine, which is very addictive and changes the synapses in your brain. It affects learning, mood, impulse control, and can worsen depression and anxiety. It is also linked to acute lung injury and asthma.”
The conference is run by Harvard Global Health Institute and Harvard College VISION: Global Health Society, a student organization at Harvard College that aims to tackle global health issues, especially optical needs, by raising awareness, alleviating preventable blindness, and educating youth.
Conference participants learned about global health disparities and how they are being addressed, as well as inequalities in income, healthcare access and quality. Organizers hope to provide high school students “with the means, tools and skills necessary to become effective leaders who can make a difference in and outside of their community, and create “an opportunity to work as a team to tackle a social justice issue and make a lasting impact in the world.” Sounds a lot like our Nobles mission of leadership for the public good—and Coker and Kulik are already doing their part.