Focused on Addressing Racial Disparities in Childbirth Outcomes
Bernadette Cooper Vereen ’14 credits Durham Academy with equipping her with skills she has used to navigate college and the start of her career in maternal health and social work. Now a graduate student, she hopes to become a perinatal social worker and address racial disparities in childbirth outcomes, with an ultimate goal of opening a natural birthing center for low-income families.
Q — What have you been up to since graduating from Durham Academy?
A — My, oh my, has the time flown. I graduated as a “lifer” from Durham Academy back in 2014. During my time at DA, I was a volleyball and softball player, and an active member of the Nicaragua Club. You could always find me hanging out in Ms. GB’s (Anne Gregory-Bepler’s) art room, and I was usually cracking jokes or singing Beyoncé’s latest hits when I definitely should’ve been doing homework. I went on to Elon University on a full merit-based scholarship as an Odyssey Scholar filled with ambition, support and some Cavalier confidence. During my time at Elon, I had the opportunity to complete an executive internship with senior leadership, do undergraduate research and study abroad in Barbados. I also worked in the office of admissions as a diversity ambassador and tour guide, and as residential assistant in upperclassmen neighborhoods. One of my favorite memories of college is becoming a member of historically African American, international Greek letter sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
When I first went to college, I thought that I wanted to go to medical school for obstetrics and gynecology. After an anatomy class in the cadaver lab freshman year, I realized I was less interested in medicine and more interested in understanding the social factors that affect health outcomes. Likewise, as a black woman, I have a passion for challenging systems that produce inequitable outcomes based on race.
In 2018, I graduated cum laude with a B.A. in psychology and minors in neuroscience, leadership studies and criminal justice. In my senior year of undergrad, I was challenged to decide what I wanted to do with my life after Elon. I made the difficult decision to defer admission to N.C. State University’s Master of Social Work program to complete a one-year post-graduate fellowship at Alamance Achieves through Elon University and Cone Health’s service year program. Alamance Achieves, part of the national StriveTogether Network, is an initiative through which community-driven collective impact focuses on improving outcomes for all children in Alamance County. Facilitated by cross-sector partners — schools, nonprofits, government agencies, faith-based groups, businesses, health organizations and others — their goal is to align efforts, opportunities and resources toward a set of shared goals to measurably improve children’s success from cradle to career. At Alamance Achieves, I learned about the impact of collaborative action and the challenges of navigating systems change in an instantaneous driven society.
Q — What are you doing now?
A — I am in my first year of a two-year Master of Social Work program and Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA) research assistantship with Dr. Jodi Hall at N.C. State University. As a research assistant, I am analyzing and coding focus group data for the HRSA and OWEP (Opioid Workforce Expansion Program) programs, which prepare graduate students for social work careers concentrated in opioid and substance use disorders. This year, I have been an MSW intern at a local adoption agency where I provide pregnancy counseling for women facing unplanned pregnancies. Also, I am a DONA International trained volunteer childbirth doula at Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington. As a doula, I provide non-clinical physiological, emotional and informational support for women and their families before, during and after childbirth. In the short term, I hope to become a perinatal social worker and address racial disparities in childbirth outcomes.
Q — What’s on the horizon for you?
A — My long-term goal is to open a natural birthing center that provides integrative neonatal and maternal health services for low-income and Medicaid families. In the U.S., health insurance plays a significant role in the clinical providers and options women have for their birthing experiences. I would like to create a medical center that offers sexual health and childbirth education courses, prenatal care, natural birthing rooms and postpartum psychological services. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I am confident that I will make my dreams come true.
Q — What DA experiences influenced you or helped you get where you are today?
A — I will always credit Durham Academy’s academic rigor for my study habits, writing skills and networking abilities that have helped me navigate through college and the beginning of my career. I remember Mr. (Jordan) Adair used to be so hard on my writing, and I didn’t even realize all that he taught me until I went to college. Most notably, Durham Academy gave me lifelong family and friends. On June 8, 2019, I married my college sweetheart, Derek Vereen. My best friends, whom I met at Durham Academy in Mrs. (Sheppy) Vann’s kindergarten class, Meg Perry, and in Mrs. (Karen) Lovelace’s first-grade class, Ana Carrell, stood next to me proudly as maids of honor. In my free time, I love cooking with my husband, traveling to the beach and playing with our two furbabies, rottweilers Roxie and Rello! DA is still and will forever be a part of my life.
Last year, I returned to DA Summer as a summer staff member. This year, I have taken on a more integral role as summer communication and financial aid coordinator. At DA Summer, I am working with Katie Kantz to prepare for summer 2020 and have been involved in several camp operations including strategic planning, program development, financial aid, fundraising, external communications and social media. I am excited to be joined by my husband this summer as he brings his experience as a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker HPW and as a football and baseball coach at Rogers Herr Middle School to DA Summer.
Lastly, I want to say thank you to my mom, Lynecia Cooper, and grandmother, Bernadette Winston. If you knew me at DA, then you know my biggest supporters are never far behind. My advice for the next generation of Cavaliers is to have a plan, but accept change as it comes.