First-gen UT grad creates major that focuses on discrimination in public health

DeShala McDuffie is working to become a support system for those fearful of public health due to discrimination.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As a first-generation college graduate, DeShala McDuffie is working to make a difference in health care and who has access to health services.

“If you told me that I’d be in the places that I am in my life right now four years ago, I would have told you you were crazy because it just doesn’t feel—it sometimes doesn’t feel real,” McDuffie said. 

Through the University of Tennessee’s College Scholars Program, McDuffie combined her interests in public health, sociology, psychology and Africana studies to create her own major focusing on racial disparities in public health. 

“That’s something that’s seen, especially in my community—I’ve seen it a lot,” McDuffie said. “Preventative health really isn’t [a] top-tier priority in my community.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said discrimination has a profound and negative impact on communities of color, preventing them from achieving optimal health. 

The CDC lists factors like housing, education, wealth and employment as “social determinants of health,” saying those conditions are key drivers of health inequalities.

McDuffie said mistrust in the health care system is something she’s struggled with herself. 

“Health issues and doctors and appointments, I’ve been surrounded by my entire life. So, I’ve been surrounded by the health care system, but honestly, I was kind of scared of it—it was kind of a fearful thing to me,” McDuffie said. 

According to the National Institute of Health, medical mistrust may be rooted in patients’ past experiences of discrimination. McDuffie wants to change that, by working toward her future as a doctor everyone can trust. 

“I was able to get over that fear and see the joy and the love that the health care system has. I mean, I just want to sort of serve as a support system for other people who have that same fear,” McDuffie said.

She will spend the summer working Nashville as a registered behavioral technician for with children with autism. McDuffie plans to enter medical school in the fall of 2025. 

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