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Canisius College pre-med director fights poverty with a focus on health

Allyson Backstrom grew up in Shelley, Idaho – “Home of the Russet Potato,” where King Spud was the high school mascot – and spent most of her working life in Omaha, Neb., before she moved to Buffalo four years ago.

Several elements of life in this resurgent city struck Backstrom from the start. The architectural gems. Landscapes that include the waterfront and nearby Niagara Falls. The talented students in the Canisius College pre-med program she came to direct.

The scope of poverty in the city has struck her more and more, particularly in her role as a member of the Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo Academic Advisory Council.

“In Buffalo, even though we have a renaissance going on, we have huge health disparities,” she said, “and I think it’s something we’ve got to take a look at.”

Backstrom, 47, holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., and master’s and doctorate degrees in the same subject from Cornell University. She also teaches chemistry at Canisius. She looks to enjoy what’s best about the region as she helps put a Jesuit-school imprint on some of the people, places and challenges that matter here.

She and the Canisius Center for Professional Development decided to do so, in part, by teaming up to train and certify community health workers. The school has created a certificate program to help provide core competency for those interested in connecting people with services that are vital to their well-being. The 28-hour certification course costs $500 per person or $5,000 for groups of up to 20 people; for more information and to register, call 888-8490.

Q. What is public health when you look at it in its broadest terms?

Everything that leads to a quality life. It’s education. It’s safe housing. It’s a job. It’s an environment free of pollution. It’s access to parks and good food. It’s feeling empowered. One of the things that causes a big, negative health impact is not having a sense of control in your own life. It’s living free of racism. We have huge health disparities in this country related to race. If you factor out all of the economic contributors to health, there are still disparities based on race because of institutional racism. … I can’t imagine how many mothers in Buffalo right now have to worry about their son because he’s a young black man. Social family networks play into health. So many of my students want to be physicians, but having a doctor is not the most important thing to our health. They can be absolutely essential in certain circumstances, but most of our health is due to all of these social determinants of health.

Q. Talk about your role as director of the pre-medical program. What do you do?

I work with students who want to enter the medical and whole range of health professions, and really work with them throughout their four years here at Canisius, even a little bit before they get here and sometimes after Canisius. We work to make sure they have the classes they need, they prepare adequately for the entrance exams – of which there are many for the different health professions – and that they get connected to the community service, the clinical volunteer opportunities, the shadowing of health professional opportunities. We work in general with about 200 students at a time. In senior year, it’s generally about 40 students that are putting in applications to medical, pharmacy, dental, occupational therapy and nursing programs.

Q. Are there any stories you can share about some of the graduates here who have ended up at top schools or in interesting fields?

Every student has their own story. The ones that inspire me the most are students who have not had every advantage and have been successful in spite of it. We’ve had a young man whose family had to flee Rwanda. He ended up growing up in refugee camps in several countries in Africa, came to Buffalo and did his last six months of high school in a Buffalo public school. He learned English as a fifth language and came to Canisius. He is currently in a public health graduate program at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and he will move from that into their medical school. While he was here, he was mentored a bit by Dr. Myron Glick, head of Jericho Road community health center. I was privileged to attend his citizenship ceremony a few months ago. He’s somebody who’s going to be a fabulous doctor.

Q. What’s a community health worker?

They are folks who are working on the front line. They are of and from a community, trusted by a community, and they’re helping to connect people, to empower people, to support people in the whole realm of social determinants of health. It could be housing. It could be education. It could be getting connected to services. They really have the skills, knowledge and practices to help people be healthy, stay healthy. They serve as a link between health and social services and build capacity – individual and community – by improving health knowledge and self-sufficiency.

Q. How many community health workers are there in Western New York?

Tough to measure because some people are community health workers and might not even label themselves as such. The network has put about 500 individuals through training, which takes the best practices for community health workers that have been established and puts them into a Buffalo context.


On the Web: Read more about Allyson Backstrom at