Service and social justice drive student's health care aspirations

Contact: Erin Flynn
A portrait of Sierra Ward.

Sierra Ward is an incoming freshman interested in pursuing a degree in public health.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—From police officer to doctor to pharmacist, Sierra Ward's career aspirations have evolved with her life experiences.

"I've always been passionate about so much," says the Loy Norrix High School graduate. As a member of the Merze Tate Explorers—an organization that honors the legacy of Dr. Merze Tate, a renowned scholar, educator, writer, world traveler and Western Michigan University alumna—Ward has had the opportunity to interview successful women in a number of career fields and explore the world, traveling to such places as Japan, Europe, Canada and Washington, D.C.

With all of her globetrotting, Ward has decided the best place to develop her passion into purpose is at Tate's alma mater in her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. A fourth generation Bronco, she admits she initially thought about bucking the family tradition when it came to college.

"Western won me over because there are so many different programs to choose from," Ward says. "I've chosen public health as my major, but I'm interested in so many things and I don't want to get trapped if I find something else that interests me. Western has a lot of other majors."

Public health is a field she didn't know much about until recently—not many people did before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Dr. Anthony Fauci became a household name. As the global health crisis magnified disparities in access to health care, Ward found her calling.

"I started looking at mortality rates and why certain people of one race or one gender or one economic standing are dying or getting sicker faster than others. What does their home life look like? Do they have transportation? Are they eating a healthy diet?" she says. "I'm really interested in making the health care system more equitable for everyone, and there's so much you can do in public health."

Driven to Serve

Sierra Ward sits at the bottom of a staircase.

Ward is graduating from Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Completing an EMT certification course through the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency's Education for Employment program, Ward has witnessed the barriers hindering access to health care. She's also seen the impact outreach can have by engaging in community service.

"I think I get more benefit from helping people than the people who I'm helping," says Ward, president of her high school's Interact Club, which is focused on volunteerism. "Our motto is 'Service above self,' so I like to take the initiative to think about how I can help someone instead of how I can be helped."

Ward's most extensive service project earned her the Girl Scouts Gold Award—the organization's highest honor. She spent hundreds of hours last year making inspirational bookmarks for all graduating seniors in Kalamazoo Public Schools as well as seniors in nursing homes and hospitals, looking to shine a light of hope in a difficult year.

"I had a lot of family who were sick and passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this project was kind of in their honor," she says. "I had a lot of friends graduating last year who didn't get a traditional graduation, and then senior citizens weren’t allowed to have visitors in nursing homes and hospitals because of COVID-19. So, I made the bookmarks to try to lift everyone's spirits."

Ward is looking forward to inspiring the next generation of Girl Scouts, preparing to lead her own troop this fall. Her commitment to leading by example got the attention of the Kalamazoo City Commission, which honored her with a 2021 Social Justice Youth Award for exemplifying the values of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through community service and volunteerism.

On top of academics and community service, she is excited to get involved on the Western campus. She hopes to join the choir, the Black Student Union and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.—an organization Merze Tate was part of, as well.

"I think it's really important, especially as a woman, especially as a Black woman, to try to continue that legacy and break generational curses and set your family and your community on the right track."

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