The Big Idea: Urban College of Boston is Unlocking Futures for Diverse Students

It’s Innovation Month here at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, so we sat down with Michael Taylor (President) and Caitlin Callahan (Dir. of Development) at Urban College of Boston, a United Way community partner and winner of United Way of Massachusetts Bay’s first-ever Venture Fund competition, held in collaboration with Aetna. Their game-changing idea is seriously leveling the clinical research playing field for diverse students in underserved communities. Here’s an excerpt:

Congrats, Michael and Caitlin, on your Venture Fund win. What social challenge did Urban College of Boston want to solve through innovation? 

We started almost a year ago thinking about this. How can we open doors for our diverse students by creating a better pathway for clinical research careers? How can we provide more equitable access for low-income individuals to pursue benefits-eligible jobs in Massachusetts’ booming health and biotech sectors?

That’s sounds very interesting—how will you do that?

We’re creating a one-year Clinical Research Coordinator I (CRC) Training Certificate pilot program—without requiring a barrier-to-entry Bachelor’s degree—in partnership with Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute (Tufts CTSI). This Venture Fund solution seeks to use access to education as the link to improve outcomes for better health equity in the community.

How has United Way of Mass Bay and Merrimack Valley helped you in your big picture plan?

First of all, this initiative would not have been possible without United Way’s investment in innovation to solve a need in the communities they serve. The Venture Fund allows us to move people out of poverty years sooner, and into growth-focused career opportunities. For the students who finish this program, they’ve worked in a hospital setting and have experience under their belt; this can be an encouragement to higher education. We’re creating a new pathway for people that have been previously excluded (the structural barrier of a Bachelor’s degree). And for the future, we’re laying the groundwork to expand apprenticeships to other institutions, from other colleges to Kendall Square biotechs. This will be a community-building effect!

You mentioned Tufts, how are they the catalyst?

This was originally driven by one of our biggest advocates and partners: Dr. Robert Sege at Tufts. He was aware of our commitment to the diverse, low-income population we serve, and saw the need to provide opportunities for a more inclusive workforce. This, in turn, can improve the diversity of vital clinical trials. (Candidates previously accepting clinical researcher jobs were part of an 80% Caucasian demographic – not the best track record for diverse opportunity). Dr. Sege and Tufts have been so supportive in their professional investment with us.

Yes, getting a degree is often a financial/time hardship for so many. So what’s the equivalent, relevant experience for this pilot program at Tufts?

The one-year CRC Training Certificate program includes a 90-hour paid apprenticeship, which includes face-to-face time with other researchers, plus 5 college courses including, of course, medical and clinical research studies. The Certificate is college credit bearing.  So diverse students not only get their foot in the door with hands-on training, they’re well on their way to a higher education.

Wow, you’re really helping people have a better future. How will the communities you serve benefit when this growth-focused idea gets executed?

So our pilot program will not only build strong career pathways, but it can improve minority recruitment for clinical trials and lead to broader community understanding and trust.  And as we said before, this plan can help people out of poverty sooner. Urban College of Boston is a small college without a lot of bureaucracy﹘we’re nimble enough to take on these community needs. And for families in the community, this pilot program will empower parents with a growth opportunity to provide for their family.

It’s an extraordinary opening of a door to someone’s future.