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Public health and biology major Kayla Williams, left, works with her CEO mentor Dolores Alvarado, at Community Health Partnership. Photo by Charles Barry.

Public health and biology major Kayla Williams, left, works with her CEO mentor Dolores Alvarado, at Community Health Partnership. Photo by Charles Barry.

Tough Choices in Public Health

Pair students with leaders in public health. Then ask them to solve tough ethical questions. What do you get? Better answers for all of us.

Pair students and leaders in public health and ask them to solve tough ethical questions. What do you get? Better answers for all of us. 

It’s a classic science fiction story that poses the ethical question: What if you lived in a world where everyone’s happiness was guaranteed—on the condition that one unfortunate child is kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery?

Would you accept that, or walk away?

For many of the eight SCU public health majors, the answer was obvious: Walk away, of course.

But as they talked, the discussion became more textured among the students, who are part of a novel mentorship program launched in 2018 that paired them with a medical or public health executive.

One CEO challenged the students’ altruism, pointing out that everyone sees the homeless, but how many stop to help?

The pledge to walk away, says Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home, “is the ideal of how we want things to be, and how we want to feel about ourselves, but not necessarily the reality of what we’re able to do, and what actually happens.”

Reality of Public Health

Welcome to the complex world of public health, where helping low-income individuals obtain medical treatment, shelter, food, or life skills training comes with uncomfortable trade-offs.

Yet who best to learn from than the executives who deal with policy choices daily?

That is the premise behind the Valeriote Goldman Public Health Leadership Program, which offers a select group of SCU students an opportunity to shadow a CEO mentor—and learn what it takes to be one. At the same time, it’s meant to develop a crucial job pipeline for these undergrads, many of whom are public health majors.

Named after SCU Trustee Susan Valeriote ’77, a former Bay Area pediatric nurse practitioner, and her husband, Ken Goldman, the program is the brainchild of Fred Ferrer ’80, the former CEO of The Health Trust—a $100 million foundation that provides direct health services and grants in addition to building community partnerships and advocating for policy changes.

“We are trying to make this a signature piece of Santa Clara’s public health program so that a student would say, ‘This is why I would go to SCU as an undergraduate in public health,’” Ferrer explains of the unconventional program, which he believes is unique to Santa Clara.

Pairing Students and CEOs—With Ethical Questions

Under Ferrer’s direction, and with the help of SCU Biology and Public Health Professor Craig Stephens, the leadership program is composed of two tracks: Over the course of six months, students and their mentors meet for a half-day once a month to discuss eclectic readings that relate to their professional futures. Among the selections: a story by Leo Tolstoy on the folly of too much ambition; Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; and acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” featuring the utopian world flawed by a caged child—that dilemma with which we started this story.

“The readings are designed to inspire introspection and the Jesuit philosophy of discernment,” says Stephens. That means looking within yourself, he explains, to realistically assess your skills, talents, strengths, and weaknesses—“what you feel drawn to, what you want to commit your life to, and then figuring out what the world needs.”

Ferrer, who leads the Socratic-style seminars, poses the kinds of tough questions that stimulate critical thinking and force people to analyze their assumptions.

“They are a little intimidated in the beginning,” says Ferrer of the class. “I push back on the students’ answers and I push back on the CEOs’ answers. Everybody participates in a very full way.”

Robyn Breynaert ’19, who was paired with Jennifer Loving, Destination: Home’s CEO, calls the program “probably the best experience of my college years.” The 21-year-old has also worked at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and plans to work in a public health clinic in San Francisco after graduation. “When do you ever get the opportunity to sit down in a room with eight extremely powerful and influential people, and work with them like they are your peers?” she asks. 

2018 Valeriote Goldman class, with program director Fred Ferrer

2018 Valeriote Goldman class, with program director Fred Ferrer

The inspired discussion continues in the second track of the program, when the students work alongside the CEOs as full-time, paid interns during the summer.

The eight-member executive roster in the first mentor group included Jennifer Loving of Destination: Home; Jolene Smith, CEO of First 5 Santa Clara, which focuses on the healthy development of children prenatal through age 5; and Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair, an East San Jose nonprofit that supports low-income children, families, and neighbors living on the margins of society.

The 2019 student cohort will be paired with high-profile community health leaders including Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s public health officer; Poncho Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart Community Service, and David Mineta, CEO of Momentum for Mental Health.

A Chance to Learn About Yourself

“It’s not just a learning opportunity, but a means for self-discovery—professionally and personally,” says Kayla Williams ’19 of her experience being paired with mentor Dolores Alvarado, CEO of Community Health Partnership (CHP). This nonprofit advocates on behalf of 39 clinics that are treating 240,000 low-income residents in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

With Alvarado as her guide, Williams plunged into the world of the clinics. She visited and talked with staff; learned how the clinics are organized, operated, and funded; attended meetings with elected officials who decide how much money the clinics get; and knocked on the door of a $1 billion foundation for a donation needed to help make up the difference.

“It’s always about compromise and knowing where people are coming from,” Williams says of the meetings she attended with Alvarado.

“I would always wonder: how can she be such a positive person when her work is never done?” recalls Williams. “In a lot of other fields, you work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and let go of whatever you are doing. But with public health, you always have people who are relying on you.”

Alvarado relied on her, too: SCU interns are required to work on a project with their mentor. For Williams, that meant creating an updated online database of all the nonprofit’s social service offerings and partners. The database, which is now being used by some of the clinics, helps CHP determine what programs are needed to improve patient care.

“That’s what public health is all about.”

Valeriote, who attended the students’ year-end presentation in November 2018, is impressed with the results, marveling at “the level of maturity, the level of know-how!”

Kayla Williams talks about her database project for Community Health Partnership. Photo by Charles Barry.

Kayla Williams talks about her database project for Community Health Partnership. Photo by Charles Barry.


“You need somebody like these kids who know how to do research and be really collaborative and implement plans that are reliable and valid,” she says. “That’s what public health is all about.”

Like the other seven CEOs who juggle busy, high-pressure lives, Alvarado was intrigued by Ferrer’s request to become a program mentor.

“I love to help students, and it satisfies me personally,” Alvarado says. “But I’m also on a serious mission. There’s an incredible shortage of professionals in our community health centers—and not just doctors. And I thought, ‘If I can inspire one or two young people to at least investigate our nonprofit as a potential career, that is something.’”

A Profound Impact

When Kayla Williams graduates in June, she will begin pursuing her dream of becoming a community health clinic coordinator or health care researcher. And because Alvarado has been so taken by her work, she offered Williams a part-time position at Community Health Partnership that started in January.

“She put her trust in me,” says Williams of Alvarado, whom she calls a lifelong mentor and someone who taught her to always reflect on how she is impacting others.

Williams believes the internship itself helped her understand the “expansive amount of resources” available to the community, and the ways in which so many nonprofits are striving to offer culturally competent care.

And the most important thing Williams says she’s learned?

“That I could have a profound community impact.”

Would you like to help more students like these make the world a better place? Join the campaign for Santa Clara:

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