Julia Walczak has a passion to help.
Because of her proposal to initiate cervical cancer and HPV prevention education classes for Polish women in Chicago through the HPV Advisory Council, she has received the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, named in honor of famed humanitarian and Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer and administrated by the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group. The fellowship program encourages students to become lifelong leaders in service by helping to address unmet health needs among vulnerable Chicago area residents.
Walczak, who graduated from College of DuPage’s Nursing program, is among 30 students representing 11 schools, 11 disciplines and 20 academic programs to receive the fellowship.
“The fellowship has provided me an incredible opportunity to not only learn about the complexities of health disparities throughout the city of Chicago but to also take a step toward promoting practical change,” Walczak said. “I’ve seen firsthand how the Polish community where I grew up is not as informed as they could be when it comes to understanding reasonable measures that can lead to their best health. I hope to give people the knowledge, along with the confidence, to take ownership of their health.”
Walczak was encouraged to apply for the fellowship by COD Nursing Professor Maureen Waller, who is now her mentor for the project.
“Julia is a trailblazer in the nursing field,” Waller said. “During her time at COD, she always wanted to do better, to do more. Her passion towards helping others is apparent in what she has accomplishment since graduating. Being her mentor on the project has allowed me to continue following her journey and I know she will become a leader in the field.”
Due to the Illinois governor's state lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Walczak had to put her fellowship work on hold, as well as her job as a research specialist at the Loyola University Medical Center's Burn and Shock Trauma Research Institute. She decided to pivot her efforts and take action where she would be the most helpful.
“As training programs in health professions were virtualized, students were sent home,” she said. “We found ourselves displaced all across the nation, away from our institutions, eager to help but uncertain how or where to provide aid. That's when I decided to volunteer to become the nursing coordinator for National Student Response Network.”
National Student Response Network is a group of medical, nursing and physician assistant students across the nation working to support public health departments, community organizations and hospitals through the challenges of COVID-19. Through her work, Walczak mobilized more than 5,000 health professions students from around the nation. Despite a full schedule, she also volunteers at a remote area COVID-19 testing site and makes an effort to reach out to the Navajo Nation, which has been particularly hard-hit by the virus.
“I couldn’t just sit home and do nothing,” she said. “We are all ready to mobilize quickly to respond to any needs that health care institutions or hospitals have. If it is just dropping off supplies or helping make phone calls, we are all eager and willing to help. Even as a student, you can contribute so much.”
Walczak also volunteers as a medical interpreter and travels to rural communities to work with residents who don’t have access to health care.
“As cliché as it may sound, I genuinely enjoy helping people,” she said. “I have heard so many heartbreaking and inspiring stories describing the various aspects of the human experience. All of these interactions, big and small, have helped me personally become a better nurse and a better person. There is something unique about being able to provide a service for someone while seemingly gaining nothing in return. I have developed a stronger work ethic and greater depths of empathy that help me both in my personal and professional life.”
Her volunteerism and strong work ethic are among the many reasons her former COD Nursing professors collectively nominated her for the 2020 Daily Herald Favorite Nurse Award. Out of more than 200 nominees, Walczak was selected as one of three winners.
“Julia is the most deserving of every award and accolade she has received,” said COD Nursing Professor Judy Carino. “She always steps up in times of need and continuously makes COD proud.”
Now a nursing student at Benedictine University, Walczak said she will continue to
advocate for health equity.
“My goal is to continue to advocate for disenfranchised communities through clinical research, advocacy and mentorship,” she said. “I believe in building a health care system that is not only better, but fairer.”