Two years ago, Jessica daSilva '16 was placed into a First-Year Seminar class focusing on religion, ethics and the global AIDS crisis with Assistant Professor of Theology + Religious Studies Laurie Johnston. Little did daSilva know, this one-semester seminar would spark a passion inside her and help shape her career at Emmanuel.
"It sounds really weird when I say it, but I absolutely fell in love with HIV and AIDS. It was just something I was very passionate about, and I wanted to make a difference," said daSilva, a biology major with a concentration in health sciences. "Having that one class that randomly got picked for me really changed my outlook on life and changed my career."
daSilva liked the subject matter so much that she became a teaching assistant for the class the following year. She created presentations and coordinated field trips surrounding the topics of HIV and AIDS. On one particular field trip, the class went to Fenway Health, a health care, research and advocacy organization whose mission is to enhance the well-being of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and of all people in the Boston area and beyond.
After the site visit, Dr. Johnston spoke with Fenway Health about internship opportunities for Emmanuel students; the organization was excited to have daSilva apply; however it didn't have an internship program, so the Career Center, Dr. Johnston and daSilva's advisor at Fenway Health created a specialized internship for her as the community engagement generalist intern.
daSilva works for the Communications Department at Fenway Institute, which produces an array of research, education and training publications for peer-reviewed journals, conferences, trainings, funders and the general public for Fenway Health. She works three days a week in the office, but also occasionally works nights and weekends when certain meetings and events take place.
As her supervisor told her, "Community engagement isn't about being in the office. It's about being everywhere else," daSilva said.
At the office, daSilva started a database for the organization that includes community engagement partners, individuals and organizations. She takes part in Connect 2 Protect (C2P), a nationwide coalition to reduce HIV/AIDS rates among adolescents and young adults through collaborate efforts of communities, researchers and medical trials. In C2P, daSilva sits on three separate committees that help LGBT adolescents living with HIV or AIDS find healthcare and safe homes, when they were kicked out of their homes, as well as help them feel comfortable in places of worship.
"Being part of Connect 2 Protect has definitely changed my outlook on a lot of things. Going to meetings and giving my two cents and seeing the change they've put into effect, it puts a smile on my face and warms my heart to know I helped make that happen," she said.
The Emmanuel junior also sits on the Community Advisory Board (CAB), which is a group that speaks for the concerns of the community on HIV and other public health issues related to research. daSilva has met many different people in the community, including doctors who she said have become life-long friends.
"In the beginning, I sat back. I'll often be the youngest one there, but they want to know what I think. They ask for my opinion. As a college student, they want my perspective. I feel like I'm actually contributing to the group and giving them something," she said.
The group named daSilva as the Colleges of the Fenway (COF) liaison. When there are new medical trials taking place, she works with a recruitment team, makes phone calls and passes out flyers on campuses.
Outside of the office, daSilva works at the the Sidney Borum, Jr. Health Center, a program of Fenway Health that provides safe, non-judgmental care for young people 12 to 29 - no one is turned away. She also attends events representing the organization to talk about different care options.
"I'm drawn to this, because there is no cure. It's something until now that I didn't realize was really an issue. Seeing how many positives come up and working at Fenway Health, it just made me think, 'Why is this epidemic still so high,'" she said. "I just want to try and make a difference."
She added that the organization and people within feel so strongly about the issues and do not care what other people think about them.
"It's actually changed me as a person. People are going to judge me - that's fine, that's their prerogative. But this is something that needs to be said," daSilva said. "Spreading the word and helping people medically is something I've wanted to do."
The wealth of knowledge that daSilva is gaining at Fenway Health is extensive, and she often brings what she has learned back to the classroom. She has worked closely with one of the organization's doctors, who always talks to her in "full-fledge details" about new discoveries and research. The Institute's trials have intrigued daSilva, and she often reads up on them, on her own time, to learn as much as possible.
Her career goal is to be a pediatric physician's assistant, but since this internship experience, she wants to work at a clinical site. daSilva would love to help children and young adults with HIV or AIDS, or help prevent it. Even as a junior, daSilva looks at Fenway Health's job openings. She's hoping they hold a spot for her someday.
"It's really a life-changing experience. I'm really glad I did it," she said.
By completing her internship early in her college career, daSilva will focus on her Senior Distinction Project next year, which will be research on HIV and AIDS and work done at Fenway Health. She said the organization would like her to continue working in the spring. She plans to still attend C2P and CAB meetings.
"I'm volunteering my time there. I'd much rather not get paid for it, because all that money can go toward helping something else and more research," she said. "I do a lot for the community. I wouldn't change it for the world."