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Ursinus College Alum Making a Difference in the Health Care of Thousands

What comes after a Rhodes Scholarship? Ursinus graduate Aakash Shah ’10 was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for his work with a nonprofit that helps the uninsured.

When Aakash Shah ’10 came to Ursinus, he was interested mainly in scientific research. Last week, he was honored by the White House as a community activist, a “Champion of Change,” for the work of his nonprofit, Be Jersey Strong, a grassroots effort that helps New Jersey residents understand their health care options.

“As a provider,” says the emergency room physician-in-training, “I find it heartbreaking to watch patients without insurance leave the hospital with more stress and anxiety than they came in with just because they received the care that they needed. Each time it is a tragedy and, more often than not, it is a preventable tragedy.”

Through conversations with patients, Shah realized that “what many of them needed was not a slick website or a flashy marketing campaign, but just a helping hand and good, old-fashioned, one-on-one conversations.”

Enter Be Jersey Strong, with the mission of training and mobilizing students to have those important conversations.

Shah is among 10 individuals selected by the White House for their work relating to the Affordable Care Act. Be Jersey Strong wants to ensure that individuals have health care options and can make informed decisions. Shah and his team have mobilized and trained about 500 volunteers from college campuses, many of whom speak a second language, to provide outreach and enrollment assistance. In terms of ground work, they represent the largest effort to connect the uninsured to coverage in the nation, Shah says.     

Shah, of Cliffside Park, N.J., who is an Ursinus trustee, spoke at the White House March 25 during a ceremony with Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

Aakash Shah (third from left) at the White House with Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett and the other Champions of Change.Aakash Shah (third from left) at the White House with Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett and the other Champions of Change.

During the last decade, Shah began to combine his love of science with a commitment to social change.Volunteering in a clinic in India opened his eyes to the connection between poverty and health care. Reading texts as a freshman in the Common Intellectual Experience forged an academic path that led to the intersect between science and policy. Ultimately, he majored in biology, neuroscience and inequality studies, and completed minors in chemistry and sociology. He obtained his M.D. from Harvard Medical School, and an MBA and MS from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

“I believe that you can draw a direct line from several of my experiences at Ursinus to what we have accomplished over at Be Jersey Strong,” he says. “Nearly all of those experiences were under the guidance of incredible mentors - the Rev. Charles Rice, and professors Rebecca Lyczak, Rebecca Kohn, Robert Dawley and Ellen Dawley - who challenged me to find how I could best make my corner of the world a better place. The lessons that I learned under them, such as the value and power of service learning, inform the very core of what we do at Be Jersey Strong.”

Be Jersey Strong has another Ursinus connection: Edward Lee ’16, who is the nonprofit’s outreach lead. Several other students, alumni and trustees have played a role in the success of the program. – W.G.