With parents who were civil rights activists, social justice was discussed frequently during Alice Jacobs Vestergaard’s childhood. Just as influential on her life was her heritage as the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who fled Germany during World War II.
“I never took anything for granted because I realized the sacrifices made and challenges overcome by marginalized populations,” she says. “It colored my entire career in wanting to help people.”
Vestergaard, a community health instructor in the School of Nursing at Samuel Merritt University (SMU), won the 2019 Dr. Cornelius Hopper Diversity Excellence Award for developing a community nurse corps that works in an impoverished area known as Sacramento’s Promise Zone.
“Dr. Vestergaard is a visionary whose dedication and hard work created an innovative, collaborative solution to the health disparities and health inequities of Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods,” SMU President Ching-Hua Wang said while presenting the award to Vestergaard during SMU’s Black History Month celebration on Feb. 26.
The award is named for Dr. Cornelius Hopper, former chair of the SMU Board of Regents who joined President Wang at the podium to congratulate Vestergaard. Each year, the award is presented to a member of the SMU community whose leadership advances diversity across or beyond the University.
What jeopardizes patients' health?
Early in 2017, Vestergaard launched the nurse corps initiative to introduce students in SMU’s RN-to-BSN program to public health issues. The students — acute-care nurses working at Kaiser Permanente who are pursuing their bachelor’s degrees — provide free health education and counseling to some of Sacramento’s most underserved residents. Meanwhile, they learn about the social and economic challenges that jeopardize the health of some of their hospital patients.
Vestergaard, who sees herself as a “social change agent,” says the three years she has spent at SMU have been the most fulfilling of her career.
“My work at Samuel Merritt has had many tangible benefits because of our partnerships in the community,” she says. “Community agencies win, our students win, and the populations we serve win. Hopefully their lives are made better by these collaborations.”
While helping less fortunate people is part of Vestergaard’s DNA due to her parents’ activism, her worldview was also informed by her grandparents, who often hosted foreign exchange students and exposed her to many different cultures from a young age. It inspired Vestergaard at the age of 18 to spend a year in a small Swedish town near the Arctic Circle with other students from around the world, an experience that she called “life-changing.”
“While living in another culture, you connect to people at a very deep level,” says Vestergaard, who has since traveled to many countries. “You see the similarities between you, not the differences.”
She left Hollywood to help people
Vestergaard received her bachelor’s degree in theater arts and although she appeared in a couple of films, she says she didn’t fit into what she calls the “Hollywood gestalt.”
“I wasn’t helping people,” says Vestergaard, who went on to earn a doctorate in education with a focus on higher education and health care.
Now, as she did with the nurse corps, Vestergaard is cultivating her connections with nonprofit organizations and government agencies to expand community health placements for nursing students on SMU’s Sacramento campus.
One of her latest initiatives is a Nurses to Schools Corps that is working at two economically disadvantaged public schools in Sacramento. The community collaboration introduces the nursing students to the public health issue of Adverse Childhood Experiences — abuse, neglect, transiency, food insecurity, homelessness, or exposure to crime and violence — that put young people at higher risk of developing chronic diseases when they are older.
“The work I’m doing makes me feel like a real part of the community,” says Vestergaard.