Spence Adams is a graduate student at Western Michigan University and recipient of two scholarships through the Kalamazoo Community Foundation (KZCF). He received the Myra P. Whalen Scholarship in 2023 and the Love Where You Live Scholarship in 2022.

For Spence Adams, the desire to use the tools at his disposal to help others was something he identified with from an early age. Having grown up in a home with two parents who worked in medicine, his father, an orthopedic surgeon, and his mother, a nurse practitioner, Adams was exceedingly familiar with navigating the intersection of health, race and inequitable systems.

With a national healthcare system plagued by a history of medical malpractice, including the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, gynecological experimentation on enslaved Black women and more, Adams has long understood that people of color, women and other vulnerable communities have been historically disadvantaged and often targeted within the healthcare system.

Now, as a graduate student in Western Michigan University’s (WMU) Master of Public Health program and the community engagement coordinator for the State’s Division of Environmental Health for Region 5, Adams strives to ensure that community members, particularly those of color, understand how to advocate for themselves in the healthcare space. He champions the dismantling of inequitable systems and the replacement of them with equitable ones.

Embarking on the Path

During his childhood, Adams, a native of Atlanta, aspired to become a surgeon like his father. As he entered high school, he joined the Junior Air Force ROTC program. Soon after joining, he excelled and fell in love with the experience. Eventually, he began to consider a career in the U.S. Air Force. As he continued moving forward toward his goal of becoming a surgeon, he added something new to the plan – attending the United States Air Force Academy.

“As I went through high school, I realized that there are ways that I could do this,” Adams said. “The Air Force Academy was at the top of my list. So, I felt very blessed that I got in.”

After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 2015, Adams’ plans to become a surgeon were still firmly in place. He remained content upon achieving his childhood goal until he and his family suffered an unimaginable loss.

In 2019, Adams’ twin brother, Ellington, died after contracting Cryptococcus, a fungal infection that commonly accompanies an HIV diagnosis. Ellington was HIV positive and had been battling the disease unknowingly for two years. During the process of his brother seeking medical care, Adams recalls how he fell victim to navigating a healthcare system that often allows marginalized groups to slip through the cracks.

“Even though he was protected by having two parents who were in the medical field and having wealth, the doctors still failed him,” Adams said. “They didn’t ask him important questions about his sexual wellness.”

For Adams, the death of his brother brought many questions and complex analyses for him and his family. Having grown up in a home where medical literacy was integrated into many aspects of their lives, Adams recalls the time he and his family spent trying to make sense of how his brother’s diagnosis could have been missed.

“It was a lot to process being the child of a medical professional,” Adams said. “You have to come in there knowing medical jargon and come in there knowing what you need, and that's kind of backward, in my opinion, when it comes to serving the community. How can you ask questions?”

Embracing Something New

After standing by his brother’s side and witnessing his experience firsthand, Adams realized he wanted to make a career change. Although he knew he could have provided valuable individualized care to patients as a surgeon, he understood that he could have a more significant impact on communities at large by focusing on public health instead.

Adams eventually made his way to Kalamazoo, where he began his Bachelor of Public Health program at WMU. While there, he learned more about the critical roles collaboration and representation play in establishing the well-being of the collective community.

“Community input is more important than degrees. Community members are experts in their own right, and we need to treat them as such and pay them accordingly.”

- Spence Adams, KZCF Scholarship Recipient

During his junior year, he took up a position at the YWCA, focusing on maternal health and childcare. It was his time at the YWCA that provided him with some of the valuable insight he uses in his work today.

“What I learned at the YWCA was more than just safe sleep and reproductive justice,” Adams said. “But it was critical thinking, problem-solving and cultural competency. I was able to take that into our built environment and our health around that.”

Adams carries this understanding of how intertwined public health issues are into the work he does for the larger community and is encouraged by community members and mentors to keep pushing forward. He credits his mentors, Komal Razvi, associate director of Systems Change at the Rippel Foundation, J. Kyon, principal consultant at Courage and Compassion Consulting, and Dr. Robert Bensley, professor and Public Health Program director at WMU, for encouraging him to use his voice, ask critical questions and challenge flawed systems.

Planning for the Future

As Adams completes his master’s program, he looks forward to applying the skills he has learned thus far to the work that lies ahead. In 2023, he gained experience as a lobbyist and presenter, having delivered a presentation on maternal and child health during the Society for Public Health Education’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. He also obtained his Certified Health Education Specialist certification that same year.

Adams remains just as passionate about his commitment to ensuring everyone, especially underrepresented communities, can live healthy and fulfilling lives. He encourages everyone to advocate for themselves and stand firm in understanding they deserve access to the resources they need.

“Public health is the act of listening to your community and connecting your community with resources that are needed,” Adams said. “When it comes to finding your voice, I would definitely say that we need to surround ourselves with people who instill in us that we are enough. Once we have that belief for ourselves and we know how powerful we are, sharing our voice comes naturally.”

Apply for a scholarship from KZCF by April 1, 2024.

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