Building Community and Strengthening Health

The National College Transition Network at World Education, Inc. is committed to improving the quality and accessibility of health services career pathways for adults. As many of us know, a popular entry point onto this career pathway is the highly visible Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) position. The emerging Community Health Worker (CHW) profession is another option that draws on the strengths and service interests of many adult learners.

Students enrolled in spring 2016 Foundations of Health course at Holyoke Community College.

Becoming a Community Health Worker (CHW) can be the start of a very meaningful career in public health for adult learners.  Coming from a multitude of backgrounds with a starting pay range of $14 to $22 per hour, members of this emerging profession build community connections to support good health, and may provide informal counseling and screening. Their duties resonate with many of the experiences, values and qualities of adult learners.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health defines Community Health Workers as public health workers who apply their unique understanding of the experience, language, and/or culture of the populations served in carrying out duties such as:

  • Providing culturally appropriate health education, information, and outreach in community-based settings, such as homes, schools, clinics, shelters, local businesses, and community centers;
  • Culturally mediating between individuals, communities, and health and human services, including actively building individual and community capacity;
  • Assuring that people access the services they need;
  • Providing direct services, such as informal counseling, social support, care coordination, and health screenings;
  • Advocating for individual and community needs.

As an innovative pioneer, Professor and Project Manager Janet Grant launched the Holyoke Community College (HCC)   Community Health Worker Certificate Program in January 2016.  Twenty-five participants, mostly incumbent workers from Massachusetts, have enrolled in the program during its first year.  In order to receive this certificate, students must earn 26 college credits of required classes and complete 125 hours of field experience. Upon completing their academic certificate some students may choose to continue their studies, or some may choose to do so at a later time, at HCC for an associate degree in Foundations of Health. With this A.S. degree, they can advance to a four-year school and earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in health care administration or public health.  The development of this program is funded as part of the $20 million Department of Labor Guided Pathways to Success in STEM (GPSTEM) initiative managed by Massasoit Community College (MA). Janet Grant’s vision is that the CHW certificate program becomes a successful and sustainable academic program at Holyoke Community College educating 15-20 highly skilled students per semester that employers will readily hire upon completion of their academic certificate.

Janet is a well-seasoned public health professional committed to building community and strengthening health.  She shared that, “Public health equates to social justice. Developing this program, engaging with employers and working one-on-one with students allows me the opportunity to have an impact by sharing my lessons with new people entering the field.”  The program’s connection with the New American Program of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts is an example of this impact.  New American Program staff welcomes hundreds of new refugees into the greater Springfield, MA area from countries such as Somalia, Nepal, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They guide these new refugees’ effort to access medical care; secure housing, jobs, and schooling for their children; and receive financial assistance.  Five staff members from this organization were among the first in HCC’s Community Health Worker Certificate Program by participating in a class called Core Competencies for the Community Health Worker.  To learn more about this successful collaboration, click here.

What are some lessons from the first year of the Holyoke Community College CHW program?

According to Janet, the importance of developing a structured program was validated.  Most of the students entered with a strong work ethic and commitment to their community; however, they needed  professional training.  Participating in the program is a great way for students to strengthen their knowledge and skills to augment their other strengths.  Also, it is important to build in time for students to network with employers. This increases the likelihood of being hired in the best setting for him/her.

Another big lesson is that it takes time to align the college’s institutional requirements with the requirements of employers.  It is well worth the time to make the alignment, but expect challenges. For example, when placing a student in a practicum, one needs to think about the health clearance that is needed (i.e., immunizations).  The clearance for the college is likely to be different than that of the employer.  Each system may require similar documentation, but may not accept each other’s validation. This means that it will likely take longer to negotiate a practicum contract with employer partners than one expected. All of this needs to be done in a way that minimizes students’ frustrations.

Janet believes that it is very much worth having patience when dealing with this challenge. The HCC CHW program now has seven agencies signed on as practicum sites. She suggests when looking for practicum sites that one considers refugee resettlement community organizations.  They have been a great match for students, in her experience.

Another important alignment is with the competencies (currently in draft form) of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH).   Staying connected to the DPH’s work as it designs a state-wide CHW certificate is critical for the development of the Holyoke Community College’s Community Health Worker Certificate Program.


City College of San Francisco, Community Health Worker Program

ExploreHEALTHCareers.Org – Community Health Worker

Rural Health Information Hub, Community Health Workers Toolkit                      Includes examples of states with CHW programs and their certification approach

Published by

Ellen Hewett

Ellen Hewett

Ellen Hewett is Senior Technical Advisor of the National College Transition Network (NCTN) at World Education, Inc. She served as the Director of the NCTN from 2008 until July 1, 2018. As Director she provided vision and oversight to the NCTN team, and assisted state, regional, and municipal agencies, employers, and educational institutions in building the systemic collaboration needed to design and implement college and career readiness programming. In her new role, Ellen continues to provide system-wide professional development activities and consultation aimed at ensuring adult learners’ success.