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Meet Janelle Chavez

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Janelle Chavez

As a Knight-Hennessy scholar, Janelle Chavez is tackling health disparities from multiple disciplines: medicine, policy, and communication.

When did you first become interested in medicine?

I am primarily interested in health disparities in medicine and promoting health equity in the U.S. and other parts of the world. I grew up in a small town on the border of the U.S. and Mexico that has one of the lowest physician-to-patient ratios in the country. We did not have a doctor in our town, so we had to wait for one to visit once a month. The system is very difficult to navigate, especially for the elderly and those with language barriers. This is a neglected region of the country that has a lot of health issues and needs local doctors who know the culture and the language.

What other experiences before Stanford shaped your interest in health equity?

As an undergraduate, I interned for the state senator who represented South Texas. I had a chance to see how policy could serve as a tool in addressing some of the health issues that worried me. After that, I worked at the MD Anderson Cancer Center as a Cancer Prevention Research Trainee. South Texas has very high rates of diabetes, obesity, and cancer. I then found out when I was at MD Anderson that the chances of getting and dying from cervical cancer on the border are 50% higher than elsewhere in the country. I ended up doing my college thesis about cervical cancer prevention on the border.

I also volunteered abroad in the Dominican Republic and Peru with a group called Global Medical Training. We raised funding, worked with local doctors, and volunteered at clinics in remote areas in these countries. This was the first time I had been outside the U.S. other than Mexico, and I was struck by the health disparities that exist in other places around the world.

What factors in your journey led you to apply to Stanford and Knight-Hennessy Scholars?

I wanted to go to medical school right after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. I thought I would stay in Texas to be close to my family. But when I started to research Stanford, I came across Knight-Hennessy Scholars, and I thought it sounded amazing as an international program with students from around the world, designed for globally-minded people.

I thought all of the scholarship recipients from the first class were so spectacular, and I wanted to be just like them. It seemed like a great leadership program that was focused on an important question: “How do we cultivate leaders who are going to do great things for other people?”

Coming from the border region, I've always had an international mindset, and I saw the value of using interdisciplinary ways of thinking to address important issues. It seemed like a special program that would give me an experience that was different from any other medical school.

What are you studying at Stanford?

I am enrolled in the Stanford School of Medicine and also doing a one-year Global Health Media Fellowship through the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health. I have come to realize that health communication and health literacy are powerful tools for minority populations to understand their options and to help them get access to healthcare when they need it. I plan to specialize in women’s health issues, but I want to tackle the systemic issues from all sides - by practicing as a doctor, researching the problem and solutions, and working to improve communication around healthcare topics. For example, I am currently researching disparities in access to surgery along the Texas/Mexico border, and I volunteer with a group of OB-GYNs and pediatricians in Tijuana, Mexico who help individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. I also write scripts for Stanford School of Medicine and YouTube’s health education initiative.

What impact do you aspire to have on the world?

As a physician, I hope to address the root cause of problems–such as lack of access to providers and limited knowledge of health issues–and to promote health literacy in underserved regions. This could involve providing medical care in South Texas, continuing to research these issues, or improving health literacy through television and media. Maybe it will be a combination of all three. I want to make a difference not only for individual patients, but also on the societal level. And I would love to help other students from the region, so we can get more doctors from places like my hometown - doctors who will go back and try to address some of these issues. I also see myself continuing to be involved with international efforts in places that are even more medically underserved than the U.S.

What are some of your interests outside of medicine?

I've always been interested in entertainment and media. I love concerts, movies, and reality television shows like The Bachelor and Love is Blind. I'm also very close with my family and friends, and I enjoy baking, dancing, and going to the beach, since I'm from the coast in Texas.

How do you spend your time at Stanford?

four scholars sitting and chatting by a table

It has varied a lot. The first two years of medical school were spent in the classroom. In my third year, I was on clinical rotations at different hospitals, which was one of the most challenging yet rewarding years of my life. My fourth year, I took journalism classes and interned with the health department of CNN. Outside of classes, I go to the gym, spend time with friends at Denning House, and explore beautiful California. 

How is Knight-Hennessy Scholars shaping your experience at Stanford?

Knight-Hennessy Scholars has given me a truly unique medical school experience. In my first year, I would go to anatomy lab during the day and then I would join the Knight-Hennessy scholars in the evening and do something like listen to an astronaut talking about leadership.

I have also enjoyed the collaboration with scholars across disciplines. It’s been so meaningful to work on various projects and develop strong relationships with brilliant scholars I wouldn’t have met outside of the school of medicine. Knight-Hennessy has also expanded my perspective. I was able to go to South Africa on a Global Study trip to learn about the region and its history with students from all over the world who have such different life backgrounds. I made such great friendships from that trip, and experienced perspectives that I will take with me for the rest of my life.

Finally, I have made some of my strongest, most special friendships through Knight-Hennessy. It has been such a blessing to go through graduate school with such a supportive, loving community. I know that my medical school experience and my life have been enhanced by Knight-Hennessy Scholars. I am extremely grateful for the funding, but it's these other qualities of the program that are invaluable and cannot be replicated anywhere else.

What advice would you give to someone considering applying to Knight-Hennessy Scholars?

I would encourage everyone to apply, and to have the attitude of why not me? I remember looking at the Knight-Hennessy Scholars website and feeling intimidated by the caliber of scholars. I would encourage all future applicants to believe in yourself, believe in what you've done so far, and the passion and ambition that you have for the future. Just really lay it all out there in the application and let your passions shine through!

See more Scholar Q&A