Student finds affirmation of career path through internship with Health Forward

Cole Riley stands with policy associate Tania Hewett-Mader, one of the advisors for his policy internship with Health Forward.

Editor’s note: Cole Riley interned with Health Forward’s policy team this summer. He is a senior at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. He is majoring in political science with plans to attend law school after graduation. Cole is a member of the 2019 Cohort of the Bluford Healthcare Leadership Institute and the political action chair of the NCAT Chapter of the NAACP. 

I am a rising senior political science student at North Carolina A&T State University (NCAT). I decided to attend NCAT because of its rich history of activism and its communal atmosphere. 

What I have enjoyed about my college experience is the emphasis on community in our learning. My freshman year, my professor gave us a lesson on gerrymandering, and during the second half of class, we stepped outside and had a press conference with organizers in the Greensboro community on partisan gerrymandering, specifically noting that our campus was split between two voting districts because of gerrymandering. I am happy to note that this has since changed.

My professors not only teach politics but how to also be civically engaged in our community. This meant cancelling class to go protest and vote, and supporting us through all these activities. 

During my sophomore year, I wrote and led a petition for NCAT to receive an early polling site for the 2020 primary election. Our polling site had been relocated off campus and scheduled during our spring break. After a month collecting 2,000 signatures, we received the polling site. NCAT had the second highest turnout by a college campus in the state that year.

I applied to the Bluford Healthcare Leadership Institute on a whim my third week in college. I couldn’t have imagined what a fulfilling experience it would be. 

The Bluford Healthcare Leadership Institute is an intense professional development program with a mission to eliminate health disparities by cultivating a pipeline of culturally competent, underrepresented scholars for leadership roles in health care. The program is a two-part experience for students. 

Phase 1 includes two weeks of meeting with and listening to expert national presenters, going on site visits, and completing team building activities. We ended the two weeks by presenting  to health care professionals. My group’s final presentation was about the Medicare for All legislation. I can say that after phase 1, our cohort became a group of friends and Mr. Bluford became our mentor. 

Phase 2 of the institute involves an internship that suits your career path, which was scheduled for the summer of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had other plans.

As COVID-19 spread across the U.S. through March 2020, NCAT gave students a week to vacate campus for safety precautions.

As 2020 progressed, a disproportionate share of Black people were dying of COVID, and in June, Black Lives Matter became an international movement. I had some feelings. I was frustrated that it took a global pandemic, plus the brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor for systemic racism to finally emerge as a national conversation. 

I was fearful that the activist work of young people would be belittled into a trend, despite well-rounded and realistic policy demands. Yet I also felt reaffirmed of my current path. When my group conducted our final presentation during the prior year, I remember being extremely nervous that the health care professionals in the audience might believe that it was a great idea but not  feasible in reality. 

After 2020, like many others, I have a different outlook on life. I no longer concern myself with what is and isn’t convenient to the status quo that has caused so much harm to communities of color, I would much rather help build a better world for everyone. That means continuing to fight for policy change while helping the community at the grassroots level.

Interning with Health Forward’s policy team has been the perfect fit for not only my development but my career path as well. While sitting in and participating in meetings, I particularly enjoy the critical thinking of Health Forward’s staff. Working to find a balance in prioritizing solutions, finding ways to center race equity and economic inclusion, and building/maintaining trusting relationships with grantees are just some of the ways Health Forward is adjusting to better serve its community. 

I appreciate these open, honest, and productive conversations. I believe foundations like Health Forward are best suited to influence policy changes because of how connected they are to communities. They can combine both advocacy and grantmaking in order to do the most good for the most people. 

Since my arrival at Health Forward, the staff welcomed me into discussions and involved me in daily work. Every week, I provide legislative tracking updates at the local and federal level. I have visited grantees; helped write a policy blog and create an infographic; traveled to Jefferson City to watch the Missouri Supreme Court hearing on Medicaid expansion; and networked with legal and health care professionals.

I want to thank Mr. Bluford and Ms. Qiana Thomason for granting me this amazing opportunity. I would also like to give a special thanks to Ms. McClain Bryant Macklin and Ms. Tania Hewett-Mader for providing this rewarding internship experience. I’ve had an incredible summer, and  I am excited to see where Health Forward lands with purpose alignment. I also look forward to what the future has in store for me as I prepare for law school. I will surely take all of these experiences with me.


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