By: Javacia Harris Bowser
Dr. Deborah Bowers was a proud member of the first Alabama cohort of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year. Today she is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Nursing and has served as a mentor for Albert Schweitzer Fellows half a dozen times. And she has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
“It’s a win-win,” Bowers says when asked why she chooses to mentor despite her busy schedule of teaching students and seeing patients as a family nurse practitioner. “You’re helping the community, you’re supporting the students’ learning and you’re paying it forward because these students are going to, in the future, do something very important for another community.”
Bowers has worked with fellows who are fresh out of undergrad as well as fellows who have years of professional work on their resumes.
“The purpose of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is to develop leadership and create change and improve health, so I try to get with the fellows and find out what they’re passionate about, what makes them tick, what are they excited about and then I line that up with where they are professionally,” she says.
Through the years, Bowers has served as either an academic mentor or as a site mentor for fellows – and sometimes both – depending on the project she’s helping to oversee.
As an academic mentor, she’s the one fellows turn to for a content expert.
“The academic mentor is going to look to make sure that all of the things the students are doing and the evidence behind what they’re doing is valid and meets the clinical standards of the day,” Bowers explains.
As a site mentor, she adds, “I’m looking at it to make sure it’s appropriate for the population they’re trying to reach and can be most effective in that population.”
For example, if you’re trying to teach healthy eating habits at a residential facility where the patients don’t have the ability to prepare their own food, cooking classes would miss the mark. A mentor like Bowers could help a fellow with this idea to revamp their plans to make them more impactful.
And it’s the impact that Bowers sees Albert Schweitzer Fellows make year after year that keeps her so excited about the program.
One fellow Bowers mentored helped a free clinic transition to electronic medical records.
“She was very passionate about using technology to improve the health outcomes of the medically underserved,” Bowers says.
Two other fellows worked together on a project to help patients with chronic diseases get the proper screenings for other conditions their illnesses could cause. For example, their project helped diabetes patients get proper vision screenings.
One year, two fellows with top notch administrative skills set up shop at a free clinic and each quarter of their fellowship year they took on a different leadership role at that clinic. “So they had the ability, at some point, to replicate that free clinic in another community,” Bowers explains.
When Bowers was a fellow, she worked to help the Bessemer Neighborhood Health Center with their efforts to get an on-site dispensary to improve patient access to prescription medications.
“It made my doctoral project come alive,” Bowers says of her time as a fellow. “I was able to not just implement something theoretically, I was able to implement it practically. And I was able to really see tangible outcomes in front of me why this work mattered. It kept me more laser-focused on getting it done because I could see that it was a benefit to people.”
During her fellowship, Bowers spent time in the waiting room at the Bessemer Neighborhood Health Center talking with patients, who assured her that the dispensary was needed.
Bowers says the fellowship also allowed her to build a strong professional network.
“I still have colleagues that I got to know in that fellowship year — some were mentors and some were other fellows — that if I reach out to them today for advice or support or partnership in some realm of medical care that helps the underserved they’re ready to help me,” she says. “And I’m ready to help them.”
Bowers says the fellowship bolstered her communication skills too.
“It really helped me fine tune how to talk to people about this type of work because we had to do it as fellows,” she says. “We had a night where we all had to give our elevator speech about our project. And we got critiqued on how we did.”
Bowers believes this skill is invaluable as she continues her career and strives to help her community.
“Fifty percent of getting good funding is being able to explain it so other people understand it,” she says.
Bowers wishes every student with a passion for helping underserved communities could be a part of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.
“When students actually go out into the real world and work with real patients under the mentorship of faculty members, they learn things in a deeper way,” Bowers says. “I think it’s just a superior way to train the future leaders for our healthcare system. Providers that are Fellows, I think they go into their professional practice a step ahead of everyone else because they know how to integrate their knowledge into real life situations to make a bigger impact.”