Angela Fields is a community health worker, an integral part of the healthcare system that is seen as a bridge between marginalized patients and the greater world. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Angela Fields likes to say her career in healthcare began at the age of four when her mother was too ill to cook breakfast for the family one morning. 

“She was incapacitated and could not get out of bed,” Fields said. 

Fields followed her mother’s instructions and whipped up scrambled eggs, which she served to her mother in bed. Fields’ mother suffered from a variety of medical conditions throughout life, including epilepsy, lupus, and hypertension. Still, she volunteered in her community on the South Side of Chicago, helping senior citizens apply for rent rebates, cuddling premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, and helping prepare impoverished people for job interviews.

That tenacity inspired Fields to pursue a career in healthcare, and eventually focus on a public service role; she became certified as a community health worker in 2006. 

The COVID-19 pandemic drew wider attention to this type of work when healthcare systems leaned on professionals like Fields to connect patients with resources as many people isolated at home, said Meghan Mason, an associate professor of public health at St. Catherine University.

Earlier this year, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration awarded $1.5 million each to St. Catherine University and the University of Minnesota for scholarships for students seeking a community health worker certificate. 

Community health workers are best described as a bridge between marginalized patients and institutions such as hospitals, employers, and housing agencies, among others. Their backgrounds are similar to their patients’, and their chief task is to help clients access the essentials of life, such as housing, food, and employment. 

Fields describes community health workers as the grassroots, frontline workers of the healthcare industry. 

“We have faced a lot of the dynamics our communities have faced,” she said. “We understand the mistrust. We understand the disconnection. We understand the lack of access. But we also have a formative education and our training to help others connect with those systems.”

Fields previously worked with mental health patients at People Incorporated. She began a new job this month as associate executive director of the Minnesota Community Health Worker Alliance.

Scholarship program

St. Catherine University offers a nine-month program to earn a community health worker certificate. The course typically costs about $9,000, but the federal grant will cover full tuition for between 35 and 40 students in the program each year for the next three years. The certificate program at St. Catherine University is open to nonstudents, including anyone with a high school diploma or GED.

The grant could make a significant impact in beefing up the state’s community health workforce, Mason said. 

“The folks who are most likely to enroll are less likely to have the flexibility to pay for that program,” Mason said. “The whole idea is we’re relieving that financial burden.”

St. Catherine University is working with four organizations on the initiative: Pillsbury United Communities, Children’s Minnesota, Ramsey County Public Health, and WellShare International. Each organization employs community health workers, and has existing employees who want to be certified in the field, Mason said. 

Community health workers don’t need to be certified to work in the profession. But Anne Ganey, program director for the Minnesota Community Health Worker Alliance, said employers prefer workers who are certified, partly because public insurance programs like Medicaid will only pay for certified workers. Healthcare organizations that employ uncertified community health workers have to find other ways to pay for the work, Ganey said.

Community health work is a young and burgeoning industry, Ganey said, and interest from private employers and public health departments who want to hire such workers grew during the pandemic. 

More than 700 people have earned community health worker certificates in Minnesota since 2010, Ganey added. The certificate programs are also available at community colleges throughout the state.

There are challenges to recruiting for the job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the national median salary for the job at around $46,000. Additionally, it isn’t easy work. 

“Not everyone can be one,” Ganey said. “You have to be compassionate. You have to be willing to help people. You have to be persistent.”  

But the work can be rewarding, some say. A community health worker certificate can also serve as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s or master’s degree in related fields. 

Gao Lee received her community health worker certificate at St. Catherine University as part of her bachelor’s degree in public health. As part of her training, Lee led a focus group of Hmong women in order to assess the health impacts of gardening. Most of the women in the group came to the United States as refugees and were active gardeners. 

“The point was to give more awareness of their challenges of living in the United States, and how gardening helps them cope with depression—the satisfaction of how they grow their own vegetables, the benefits of gardening, and how that connects to their home country,” said Lee, who is Hmong and from St. Paul’s East Side.

As part of her certification training, Lee helped grade practice tests for immigrants who were in the process of obtaining their citizenship, and also connected them to employment and housing resources. 

After graduation, she worked for AmeriCorps, where she helped underserved communities find jobs, build resumes, and find health resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Lee is now a graduate student in public health at St. Catherine University. She graduates next spring, and plans on joining the Peace Corps afterwards to acquire a more global perspective on public health. Her experiences as a community health worker, Lee said, will play an important role informing her public health work. 

How to apply for St. Catherine University’s program

Who is eligible to apply: Anyone with a high school diploma or GED. You do not have to be a student at the university to enroll in the nine-month community health worker certificate program.

How to apply to the program: Email Assistant Director of Admissions Tricia Wagerin at pjwangerin001@stkate.edu for application instructions.

How to apply for the scholarship: The certificate program typically costs $9,000, but a federal grant will fully cover tuition for 35 to 40 students each year for the next three years. Apply for the scholarship by clicking here. Anyone eligible for the certificate program is eligible for the scholarship.

What is the deadline for applying: The deadline to apply for both programs for the spring semester is Monday, January 9, 2023. The next round of applications opens up in the summer of 2023.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...