New doctoral student brings years of experience as a community health worker and co-leader of the CHW Common Indicators Project to the Applied Anthropology track

Keara Rodela<

Keara Rodela

By Jaycee Kalama, CLA Student Writer - November 22, 2022

It’s not every day that a doctoral student enters a program with years of relevant workforce experience already up their sleeves, let alone having already worked with their Ph.D advisor for years prior.

Well, Keara Rodela has.

Rodela, a wife and mother of three, is a new doctoral student in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University, and was introduced to the program by her colleague Kenny Maes. The two have worked together on the Community Health Worker Common Indicators Project leadership team for four years now.

According to the American Public Health Association, a community health worker is a “frontline public health worker who is a trusted member of and/or has an unusually close understanding of the community served. This trusting relationship enables the worker to serve as a liaison between health and social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery. A community health worker also builds individual and community capacity by increasing health knowledge and self-sufficiency through a range of activities such as outreach, community education, informal counseling, social support and advocacy.”

Not only is Maes her colleague, but he’s now Rodela’s Ph.D advisor too. Maes has been a professor of anthropology in the School of Language, Culture and Society at OSU since 2012, and director of the Applied Anthropology Grad Program since 2016.

“It's exciting for me to have a readings and conference class with Keara this term with a reading list that we're working through together, and helping her explore this new field of anthropology and how it links up with her experience and her expertise as a community health worker and co-leader of the Common Indicators Project,” Maes said.

Kenny Maes and Keara Rodela

According to the CHW Common Indicators Project website, the purpose of the project is “to contribute to the integrity, sustainability and viability of CHW programs through the collaborative development and adoption of a set of common process and outcome constructs and indicators for CHW practice.”

Read more about the Community Health Worker Common Indicators Project

Rodela currently serves as the health equity and community partnership manager for the Coalition of Community Health Clinics  and is the former CHW supervisor at Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

In addition to her work with the CHW Common Indicators Project, Rodela has held various roles in her 19 years in the health field, including being a health navigator for CareOregon, a certified nursing assistant, a certified medical assistant, a doula, a community health worker supervisor and trainer, a research assistant in grad school, a popular educator, a facilitator and conference presenter.

“All of my roles kind of build on each other to get me to where I am today,” Rodela said. “What is the thing? What is the job? What is the organization? What is going to help me learn the skills I need to help improve the health of my communities? That has always been what I've been trying to figure out. That has led me to doing a lot of different things.” Being a Black queer woman, Rodela said her driving forces are the health of the communities in which she’s a part of.

“The communities that make up my identity are exactly the reason I do this work. I call it heart work,” Rodela said. “In the different spaces in the work that I do, I want to always center the folks most impacted, be it if it's in my Black community, or within my queer community, whatever tables or spaces I'm at, I want to make sure I'm an advocate or am trying to make sure the voices who are missing and who are typically not listened to are there and are able to speak up.”

In fact, Rodela comes from a family of people who center their communities. Growing up, Rodela’s mom worked in the health field. According to Rodela, her mom was a bridge between their communities—those who needed help—and the health care system.

“I watched her in the health system, she used to work for the county school health department. Just seeing her model how she took care of folks who came into her reach that needed help is what she and my grandma used to do. So I grew up watching these really strong Black women do these things,” Rodela said. “My hope and goal, and my objective, is to always use my work, life, academic experience and skill sets to the betterment of my communities. It runs in our family. Fighting for and working toward supporting and uplifting our communities is what we've always done.”

Rodela thanks her family, friends and mentors for supporting and encouraging her, and helping provide opportunities that she would not have gotten on her own, including a Provost Scholarship and Prestigious Diversity Fellowship from OSU, nominated by Maes.

“I am really proud of the fellowship I was able to get to be able to come and go to school here.” Rodela said. “It's expensive to go to school, and according to the background I came from—low income, raised by a single parent—I'm not the college student that should be sitting here getting a PhD if you look at the typical life trajectory for similar folks.”

If you told Rodela back when she was in middle school that she would go on to receive a bachelor’s degree, she wouldn’t have believed you, let alone working toward her PhD in her 40s.

Keara Rodela

“I'm fortunate to be one of the two people on CI Project leadership team who are faculty members who can bring in community health workers to a graduate program and help them meet those goals of getting an advanced degree, getting a PhD,” Maes said. “This is the first time that this is really happening, but our hope is that this kind of thing will continue to happen—that Keara is just the first of many community health workers who will have these kinds of opportunities, so that they'll be the professors of the future who are training more community health workers.”

Being a first-generation student, Rodela received a Bachelor of Science in Community Health Education from Portland State University, earned her Master of Public Health in Global Maternal Child Health from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and is now at OSU for her PhD in Applied Anthropology.

When training as a doula, Rodela learned that if you can put programs out there that help give mothers the education and the access to resources that they need to make their own educated choices, you can impact health—and that’s when she realized she wanted to learn how to do programming better and on a larger scale, so she went to PSU.

During her last semester at PSU, Rodela took a program implementation and evaluation class, and felt like that class was just scratching the surface.

“The class didn't really tell us how to do the thing, it just told us about theories and models that could be implemented,” Rodela said. “I needed to know how to implement them. What does this look like in real life? How do you build this? Where do you even start? How do you get money to do that? That's when I started thinking about getting a master's degree because there was still so much to learn.”

While Rodela was looking at how to address the high maternal death rates for Black women; how to increase breastfeeding rates for Black women; and how to get every Black woman access to a doula at Tulane University, she learned about social determinants of health and epigenetics and began considering a Ph.D. After learning about the similarity between public health and bio-cultural anthropology and the way it connects well with social determinants of public health, she was inspired to pursue anthropology.

“I feel very fortunate and I am excited that I'm here, and that I'm gonna be able to do this work,” Rodela said. “I know that I do it standing on the backs of my ancestors, for sure. I have some strong women behind me and some strong family members behind me that got me here. It was really awesome for that to be recognized and to be awarded a fellowship because of that—because of the things that I've been able to accomplish so far, with support from my husband and family, and I plan to continue to accomplish.”

In the next five to 10 years, Rodela is looking to finish her degree, continue her work with the CHW Common Indicators Project, and become a faculty member on a local campus in Oregon. Although Rodela had one Black faculty member she could lean on as a mentor at Tulane University, not having any Black faculty in her direct program was hard. Looking forward, Rodela wants to be a good contact on campus for other first-generation, Black, queer Oregonian kids who are pursuing college.

“I'm excited for this journey—for what I can contribute while I'm here on the OSU campus, and what I can accomplish once I'm done,” Rodela said.