Inspiring grads: Sam René

Sam René. (Joshua Clark/University of Illinois Chicago).

Only two semesters into his master’s in public health degree program as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Midwest, Chicagoan Sam René got a real-world taste of the career he was planning.

As a staff sergeant with the Illinois Air National Guard, René was deployed to set up a COVID-19 testing site in Harwood Heights. Suddenly, all his classroom learning came into sharp focus.

“The conversations we were already having in class about health disparities and access to health care, we were seeing that with COVID testing,” René said.

In many ways, René had been preparing for a public health emergency long before he began the MPH studies at University of Illinois Chicago. René was an undergraduate at Kentucky State University, majoring in nursing.

“After delving into nursing, I decided it wasn’t for me. I would rather be on the prevention side rather than the reactive side of medicine,” he said.

He landed on a psychology major with a focus on health behaviors instead and took advantage of an opportunity to study the public health system in London – comparing their health care system to the U.S. That’s when he began to see health access disparities even within First World countries, and he wanted to do something about that.

“When I learned what the National Guard does, knowing the group protects our nation on the frontlines and helps the local community – that was more of my style than going overseas,” he said

After graduation, he joined the National Guard as a medic. He was also working full time when he decided to pursue his master’s degree. And, UIC’s diversity appealed to him. “I knew attending UIC for my MPH would be ideal. I would get exposure to a variety of different health concerns and topics I could learn,” René said.

But, his first semester didn’t go so well. “I wasn’t ready. I had to pull back,” he said. 

He said he had great advisers and instructors who motivated and inspired him to return to school. It was that support system he tapped into again when he was deployed to fight the pandemic. His decision to join the National Guard and pursue his MPH was affirmed when he began setting up testing clinic.

“I was dressing up to do testing as if I was going into an operating room and from that moment it was cool — but scary. It was exciting. This is the reason why I joined the Guard, to be part of a team to respond to the community need — the biggest need of the century,” René said.

He was able to keep up with his school work and projects online, often working five hours a night after a 12-hour day at a COVID-19 testing site. His professors worked with him to help him accomplish his assignments.

“I was standing alongside others who were juggling a lot. That was a huge motivating factor,” he said.

René continued to fight the pandemic through a deployment in Markham, Illinois, setting up a testing site there, and witnessing firsthand health disparities within the community. As lines of people waiting to be tested of COVID-19 spanned 2 miles, René learned how hard underrepresented communities were being hit by the virus.

“I was meeting so many people who had lost people to COVID. I realized I was living an experience that we talked about in classes when we were talking about other diseases like HIV and diabetes that hit minority communities harder,” he said.

Another deployment took him to downstate Carbondale, this time to help set up vaccination sites. He said it was an eye-opener and showed him how he could be a resource for underserved communities. The 31-year-old Chicago native plans to utilize his MPH from UIC and continue his service with the National Guard doing just that.

“I hope to be at the table one day to make decisions about what resources are needed and where, and to help educate people as to what is going on with diseases, cures and treatments,” René said.

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