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Research in area jails helps solidify Blugold's plan to be doctor

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: As a Blugold, Callie Vogel found a variety of experiences on campus, in the community and in other parts of the world that helped her gain the knowledge, experiences and confidence she needs to pursue a career in medicine.

While Callie Vogel knew she would have lots of memorable experiences at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she never imagined spending time with people who are incarcerated in Chippewa Valley jails would be among the best of them.

But a multiyear research project that took her into area jails to document health inequalities was one of the most meaningful experiences she’s had as a Blugold and helped to solidify her plans to pursue a career in medicine, says Vogel, a native of East Troy who will graduate in December with majors in Spanish and biology, a minor in pre-professional health sciences and an emphasis in pre-med.

“This research project definitely made my experience here at UWEC memorable and authentic,” says Vogel. “I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of participatory democracy and make progressive change in my community.”

While in a University Honors course, “Democracy and Health Inequity,” Vogel and her classmates went into nearby jails, talked with incarcerated individuals and collected data relevant to their mental health, housing status, childhood experiences, resilience and other demographic factors.

They found that many of those who were incarcerated had a variety of health issues but lacked proper health care, Vogel says.

“They don't have a relationship with a primary care physician, mental health challenges are present, as are alcohol and substance addictions,” Vogel says.

They also found that resources were not adequate to evaluate and/or meet the health needs of those who are incarcerated, Vogel says.

The research team shared the data they collected with the Eau Claire County Board of Supervisors, several members of the Eau Claire City Council and nearly 50 other stakeholders to push for changes to help address health inequalities in this population, Vogel says.

Already, Vogel says, changes have been made because of their efforts and data they provided decision-makers.

For example, an additional social worker was hired by Eau Claire County to help people who are re-entering the community after being incarcerated make a plan for getting back on their feet, and a brief mental health evaluation now is given to every person who is entering jail to evaluate whether they need more mental health services, she says.

This fall, Vogel and two other student researchers and Honors students, Allison Schwarz and Natalie Lasinski, launched a new phase of the project by creating a video of their findings, which they shared with Chippewa Valley jail inmates, asking them for feedback on the data presented.

“It was very eye-opening to hear their responses to what was being shown and it gave us a lot of insight on the criminal justice system and what changes they would like to see,” Vogel says. “A quote that really hits home with this project is ‘those closest to the problem are also those closest to the solution.’”

Dr. Ruth Cronje, a professor of English and the faculty lead on the research project, says it was important for the researchers to return with their data to the jail, present their work to individuals who are incarcerated, and then interview them to get their perspective about what the data are telling them.

“Not only do these jailed individuals have insight, borne of lived experience, that can provide helpful nuance to our interpretations of our data, but it’s important that our project include the voices of people who are directly affected by incarceration,” Cronje says.

Cronje credits Vogel with taking the lead on this new phase of the project, noting that she deployed all the research skills she has developed to network with the jail staff in Eau Claire and Chippewa counties, led the team in creating a video highlighting some of their important results and set up the logistics of scheduling Zoom meetings with the individuals who were willing to be interviewed.

Given her ongoing commitment to the project, Cronje says she’s confident Vogel will make a difference in the lives of people wherever her future career takes her.

“While Callie’s hard work on this latest phase of our work demonstrates her research expertise, even more importantly, this work signals her commitment to empowering the voices of an underrepresented demographic of our society,” Cronje says.

Vogel says the research project further convinced her that medicine is the right career path for her, and that as a physician, she can help those most in need and those who have health inequities.

“This project greatly contributed to my passion to be a doctor, especially one who works in rural medicine providing care to those most in need and those facing health disparities,” Vogel says.

As a Blugold, Vogel also found additional meaningful experiences in Costa Rica, where she studied abroad for a summer and later spent several weeks as a volunteer.

“I couldn't speak more highly of this experience and it will forever be one of the best opportunities I have ever had,” Vogel says of studying in Costa Rica for a summer. “The language department prepared me very well, and my Spanish-speaking abilities improved greatly. The people I met there, the amazing professors I had there, and the ease of visiting and traveling to a new country all were incredible.”

Vogel returned to Costa Rica during a Winterim session through the VIDA Volunteer program, which provides health care and establishes free clinics to communities where people have little to no access to health care facilities.

The volunteer experience showed her how valuable her Spanish-language skills may be in her future work as a physician.

“I could use my Spanish-speaking abilities to communicate with the individuals who we were caring for and get to the root of the problem they wished to address,” Vogel says, noting she was among the few volunteers who could communicate with patients in their native language.

Her volunteer work in Costa Rica also inspired her to think even more broadly about what paths she might someday want to pursue within the field of medicine.

“It opened my eyes to health care in foreign countries and further pushed my passion to become a doctor one day,” Vogel says of her time in Costa Rica.

Closer to home, Vogel also found valuable experiences on campus and in the Eau Claire community, including being a student-athlete, active in student organizations and volunteering at Mayo Clinic Health System.

While she initially was uncertain if being a student-athlete would be a good fit, Vogel says she’s glad she decided to join the track and field team, competing in short sprints, long jump and triple-jump events.

“Being a part of this team allowed me to make so many amazing friendships early on, which gave me a wonderful group of dedicated and committed athletes to associate with,” Vogel says. “The bonds I have with my teammates and coaches are ones that I know will last a lifetime.

“It also taught me valuable life lessons, such as self-discipline, having a strong work ethic and being able to work as a team. I cannot speak more highly of the coaches who pushed me every day to give 100% and dedicated so much of their time and effort to building such a strong team."

Vogel also found friendships and opportunities serving as a leader in the Pre-Professional Health Club, a student organization that focuses on health care careers and helps Blugolds move toward a career in medicine.

The student organization helped her build her leadership and communication skills, and connect with other Blugolds who share her interests in medicine.

In the Eau Claire community, Vogel gained knowledge and experience — as well as an opportunity to give back — as a volunteer at Mayo Clinic Clinic Health System.

“This experience gave me a real insight to working in a health care field, especially in a hospital setting, and allowed me to interact with many different people from all walks of life,” Vogel says of spending time with health care professionals as well as patients. “It taught me the importance of gratitude and how even the smallest thing can make the biggest difference in someone's life.”

Vogel says her experiences inside and outside the classroom have given her the solid foundation she needs to pursue her dream of becoming a physician.

“The language department is amazing and made my study abroad experience phenomenal,” Vogel says. “The biology department further solidified my interest in biology and wanting to become a physician. Every experience, research project and volunteer opportunity also made me confident that the majors I chose were the right ones for me and helped me find my path.

“I definitely feel UWEC has prepared me for my future successes from the material I have learned to the connections I have made. I could not be more thankful for my time at UWEC and all the wonderful experiences I have been a part of here.”

Following her December graduation, Vogel will prepare to take the medical school entry exams this spring and then begin applying to medical schools.