optiMize-Detroit: One year out, First8 talks about impact of grant

Source: Michigan News

Shafiul Alam is the co-founder and leader of First8, a medical and educational intervention program that promotes positive child health outcomes in Metro Detroit.

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Leveraging the mentorship, leadership development and funds from his optiMize fellowship last year, Shafiul Alam has continued his program First8 to support his community during the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against racial injustice. 

A Hamtramck native, Alam started the program to tackle health disparities of asthma-related care. The name First8 was inspired by Alam’s research experience and highlights the importance of a child’s first eight years of life. The program is committed to “improving the quality of life early on for payoffs down the road,” he said. 

Working to mitigate language barriers that exist in healthcare, the program also provides medical educational information that is accessible and inclusive. First8 engages with the diverse communities around metro Detroit and translates pamphlets and medical information into Albanian, Arabic, Bangla, and other languages. Many of First8’s multilingual resources provide asthma management strategies for parents with asthmatic children.

With a mission of improving medical literacy through multilingual education, First8 published Coronavirus Fact Sheets translated into Albanian (pictured), Arabic, and Bangla.

Since graduating from the University of Michigan this past May with a degree in psychology, Alam has expanded First8 to focus on community-oriented projects. 

Technology was his team’s way of connecting Ann Arbor-based students to residents of metro Detroit. Now, having operated with stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, First8 is leveraging its online presence. The program is now using Twitter and collaborations with local TikTok influencers to reach broader audiences and organize events. 

In the spring, First8 designed and translated CDC-informed pamphlets explaining the spread and prevention of coronavirus as well as social distancing guidelines. Through the increased social media presence, he was able to reach more people. 

First8 is also tackling food insecurity worsened by the pandemic. In collaboration with Forever Golden, a music collective led by Curtis Roach and Brenton “B Free” Freeman, First8 hosted a grocery drive with food supplied by New Shahjalal Grocery Store. On May 3, First8 and Forever Golden delivered 1,500  pounds of food to families in Hamtramck and Detroit. 

Experience with optiMize

Alam said his work with optiMize was pivotal to the success and growth of First8. He and his team of fellow U-M students Angela Shehu, Luthfor Khan and Klea Gjonaj were able to grow First8 from a small group of teenage translators into a larger program geared towards community engagement and medical literacy.

Alam says that the organization’s ability to put students in contact with community leaders was pivotal to his team’s success. Through optiMize and its additional workshops in Detroit, prominent figures became accessible to the students. 

“They see the work that you’ve put in, they see your slide decks, they see the research, they see your passion, they see your enthusiasm,” he said.“That opened so many doors for me. It’s unbelievable.” 

Now as a mentor in the optiMize program himself, Alam appreciates the effort and personal investment mentors had with students during his fellowship. Lisa Bergum, the organization’s mentorship and engagement manager, helped Alam manage the workload of growing his program while taking a full course load of classes. Open and welcoming, Bergum set up networking sessions that helped Alam establish connections with like-minded entrepreneurs.

Looking to the Future 

Alam advises this year’s student teams to go into every meeting with confidence and enthusiasm. He says it’s important to be one’s own strongest advocate, because it shows determination and a desire to grow and succeed. Alam acknowledges that inevitably, each team will face tough times and a lot of ‘no’s — the key to success is never to give up. 

Through First8 and his involvement with the optiMize, Alam discovered a passion for social impact. Returning to campus this fall, he is working toward a Masters in Public Health. Alam will dedicate his studies in health and epidemiology to amplify First8. 

“This will definitely not be my last project,” he said of his program. “This is something I want to continue for the rest of my life, because it means something, not only for me, but for others.” 

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