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Hed: Bringing a Unique Perspective

The University of New Mexico is building a multimillion-dollar health policy center to increase American Indian and Hispanic scholars’ involvement in national health policy research and development.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the nation’s largest philanthropy foundations devoted exclusively to improving health care, gave the university a $18.5 million grant — the largest private gift in UNM history — to establish the center at the UNM campus. The center aims to help American Indian and Hispanic students who are pursuing doctoral programs in the social sciences.

UNM, the state’s largest university, is home to the state’s only schools of architecture, law, medicine and pharmacy, and operates New Mexico’s only academic health center. Almost half of its 32,300 students are minorities, including 30 percent Hispanic and 12 percent American Indian.

“The creation of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico comes at a time when the nation’s ethnic and racial diversity is rapidly increasing, and will be guided by the principle that development of health policy should be grounded in the experience of the people it represents,” says Charlene Porsild, the center’s program manager. “Currently, few Hispanics and Native Americans are bringing their perspectives to health policy discussions.”

The center is scheduled to be completed this fall and is expected to train approximately 100 students within five years of opening. 

Porsild will be searching the country for doctoral students. Candidates will be eligible for $22,000 annual scholarships and will be able to choose courses of study existing within UNM’s political science, economics and sociology programs.

Doctoral fellowships will also be available in programs such as anthropology, communications, education and journalism. Additional center money exists for dissertation research scholarships, postdoctoral fellows, part-time graduate students and joint master’s-doctoral degrees in public health.

Of the $18.5 million donation, $8 million has been set aside for an endowment. The remaining $10.5 million will be used to operate the center over the next five years, with the likelihood that the foundation will continue to fund the policy center.

“To create the best health care services for all Americans, the country needs a diverse group of leaders in Washington and in academic circles who represent the interests, cultures and needs of this incredibly diverse nation,” says Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the foundation’s president. “When it comes to health, one size does not fit all. We need to nurture and support a new generation of health policy leaders with diverse perspectives.”

Minority groups disproportionately face barriers to good health. Many lack access to quality health care and face unhealthy living environments, suffer from poor health and premature death.

“Expanding access to health care and providing health coverage for all New Mexicans are priorities for my administration and this center will help turn these policies into reality,” says New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. “As New Mexicans, we are very proud of our diversity and our role as national leaders on health policy. This center will ensure minority, Hispanic and Native American voices are included in the national health care policy discussion.”

To achieve national impact, and in the process improve health outcomes, the center will focus in five areas that include recruitment, readiness, retention, research and awareness, Porsild says. The center will also increase the pool of minorities interested in doctoral programs in the social sciences; work with academic departments to offer a rigorous and interdisciplinary educational programs that prepares students for leadership in the policy arena; work to retain Hispanic and American Indian students by offering financial, social and cultural support along with research and educational opportunities that allow students to stay connected with their communities; and conduct independent research and develop and support a national research agenda that promotes a better understanding of health issues that include access, cost and health care quality to inform the policy debate.

For more information on the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy, visit the Foundation’s Web site,

–Shannon Shaw


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