An Interview with Sandra Pope

by Beth Blevins

Sandra PopeSandra Pope was recently named Director of the West Virginia Area Health Education Centers (WV AHEC) Program at West Virginia University, where she has been Associate Director since 2003. In this capacity, she also serves as the Project Director for the West Virginia SEARCH (No longer available online) program. Previous to working at AHEC, Pope served as the director of the State Office of Rural Health Policy (SORH), the director of West Virginia’s EACH/RPCH Program, the director of the Black Lung Clinics Program and as an Administrative Assistant/Outreach Worker for the Agent Orange Assistance Program, all within the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health.

In addition, Pope is a reviewer for  federal grants, such as state offices of rural health, Critical Access Hospitals, Rural Health Outreach and Network Development grants. She was the first interim and elected president of the West Virginia Rural Health Association, where she is a current Board Member and Historian. She chairs the National Rural Health Association’s (NRHA) Multiracial and Multicultural Committee, and serves on the NRHA Government Affairs Committee and the National AHEC Organization’s External Relations Committee. She is chairwoman of the Board of Directors for the nonprofit Schoenbaum Family Enrichment Center. She has also served on NRHA’s Board of Trustees and was a 2000 Primary Care Policy Fellow at the U.S. Public Health Service.

Pope earned her Masters in Social Work from Ohio State University and her B.S. in Social Work from West Virginia State College. She is a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

She is active in her church, First Baptist Church of Charleston, where she is a Deacon, part of the first and only group of ordained female Deacons in the church’s 137-year history. In her spare time Pope likes to read, play board games, and work on daily brain games on her Nintendo DS. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, Tiffany, and grandson, Jared, and her five sisters and brother when they are all in town. Her favorite music includes gospel music, followed by jazz and blues, and instrumental music.

Did you grow up in a rural area? If so, do you think that’s one reason you became interested in rural issues? Were there particular experiences that prompted your interest in public health?

I grew up in Charleston, WV, about five miles from where I currently work, and about 10 miles from where I live. Pockets of this county are medically underserved. People in other states would consider it rural, but in West Virginia it is definitely considered “city”—the population is about 53,000. I currently live in Dunbar, which is right outside of Charleston, and the population is 8,400. Dunbar is a small town, but it has many of the amenities that I would find in Charleston.

My interest in public health began when I was a summer youth employee at the old WV Department of Mental Health. I worked in the Director’s office. She (Dr. Mildred Mitchell Bateman) was such a committed and caring lady, and I really enjoyed being around her and the people in the office. (Dr. Bateman has been recognized in WV and nationally for her contributions to Mental Health care, and was the first African American woman to be named to a high ranking state office in WV). I was eager to learn and people were willing to share, and then I became interested in the programs and services being offered and how they could impact the people in my own community. I was impressed. And, I guess I must have impressed them, because I came back to work every summer until I graduated from college, and also worked there during some college breaks.

In 1983, I started working in the State Department of Health (by then Mental Health and Health had been combined) as a temporary employee. There I came in contact with the Director (L. Clark Hansbarger, MD). When he spoke, you knew he had a wealth of knowledge, yet he could relate to you at your level, and his true concern for your personal well-being always came through. As it turns out, I would have the opportunity to work with him again. He is the Associate Vice President for Health Sciences and Dean for the WVU Charleston Division, where the AHEC Program is located.

I just knew I wanted to return to work in state government after college. Unfortunately, a few months before I graduated from graduate school at Ohio State University, a freeze was placed on state hires. I returned to Charleston and interviewed for various jobs. Time and time again I was told I was overqualified, and I started doing odd jobs. I had a young child to support.

A few of the jobs might have been considered demeaning to some, but I did what I needed to do for financial support. For example, I worked as a bathroom matron at the local football stadium, and I never felt ashamed, I just did what I needed to do to earn money. I honestly feel that everything that happened was Divine preparation. I worked as a temporary secretary—I can’t tell you how that has helped me in working with my own secretary, in having a relationship with her. I know what it’s like. I can say to her, “I’ve been where you are.” I don’t ask her to do anything that I’ve never done myself. Working those jobs has helped put me more in touch with the real world and real world problems, and has helped me do the job I’m doing today.

How did you start working for the state government in West Virginia, after college? Did you start at the Agent Orange Assistance Program? If so, what did the job involve?

I started in state government (in the office where the Agent Orange Assistance Program was housed) as a temporary employee, doing secretarial work. I initially had a temporary assignment for four days (the first day of the week was a holiday). This stretched into weeks and then months. I was going to apply for a permanent secretarial position in the office, and then someone told me about this contract job (no benefits) for the Agent Orange Assistance Program. I applied and was hired. In this position I was providing information and assistance, and we were compiling data from a very successful survey on Vietnam veterans and Agent Orange (over 4,000 responses). I wasn’t there long. From there, I started working with the (health care) Recruitment Program, and helping with the Black Lung Clinics Program one day a week. Eventually, I moved over and starting working full-time in Black Lung. I have enjoyed all of my different positions, but I have to say the staffers in the Black Lung clinics were like family. Most of them connected with me right away and we had a wonderful working relationship.

When you were earning a degree in Social Work, did you envision working for something like an AHEC?

Are you kidding, at that time I had never of heard such as word as AHEC!

Seriously, I really did not know what I wanted to do or be, but I knew I needed to go to college or get some kind of education or training. My parents, Hazel and Marcus, instilled that in me. They would say, “You are a smart girl. Make something of your life. Whatever you do, be the best that you can be. Nobody can ask for more than that.”

I became interested in social work because, when I was pregnant in high school, I talked with a social worker that was very caring, helpful and non-judgmental. The pregnancy was something I was embarrassed about and I knew it was disappointing to my parents. In addition, my father died before my 16th birthday and the birth of my daughter. This social worker (Margaret Bishop) helped me through a very rough period, and I would think to myself, I want to help other people like she has helped me. I graduated from high school (with my class) and then went on to West Virginia State College (now University). I still was not certain of a major, so I enrolled for a two-year degree in social work. I continued on for my four-year degree and then intended to get a job. Fortunately, I was one of the top 10 minority students at State and was given the opportunity to visit Ohio State and their graduate programs. I did visit, was very impressed and they offered me a minority fellowship. I majored in social work and obtained a Master’s degree there. I have to thank God and my Mama for that. I could not have gone to college without her. She reared my daughter while I was in school. When I was at Ohio State I would travel home on weekends (a six-hour bus ride at that time).

Did you ever work as a social worker?

After graduate school, I worked for a time at a local hospital as a medical social worker. I really enjoyed the work but the person I was filling in for was on maternity leave and there were no openings. I worked with families with really sick children.

What I’ve found in any of my jobs, whether I was helping communities organize or doing administrative work, is that I use that training. I’ve had to work with people who didn’t want to work with me, especially when I was going out and trying to help establish Critical Access Hospitals. I’ve worked in communities of people with a negative outlook on government where I was representing the government. I’ve worked with men not used to having to work with women or hear what women have to say. I worked within many communities where there was nobody who looked like me—I’m African American. You could feel the discomfort, but I knew what I had to offer was good for them and those communities. I worked through it. I guess some of it was personality but some of it was social work skills, which helped give me the ability to listen to and counsel people. But part of social work is also understanding community dynamics. They’re the perfect skills to have. I’d encourage other people to study social work if they want to work in administration or the community development arena.

What is the main purpose of Area Health Education Centers (AHECs)?

AHECs are academic and community partnerships that provide health career recruitment programs for K-12 students and increase access to health care in medically underserved areas. AHECs address health care workforce issues by exposing students to health care career opportunities that they otherwise would not have known about. Additionally, AHECs establish community-based training sites for students in service-learning and clinical capacities, provide continuing education programs for health care professionals, and evaluate the needs of underserved communities.

Even though all AHECs are involved in health careers pipeline activities, each AHEC Center is unique, developing projects and initiatives that will best meet the needs in their particular region. I once heard a seasoned AHECer say, “Once you’ve seen one AHEC, you’ve seen one AHEC.” In many ways, that is true.

Does the WV AHEC sponsor any activities particular to your state or region? Do the five WV AHEC centers have similar activities, or are they individualized?

The West Virginia AHEC Program focuses on: training of health professions students to provide health services to medically underserved populations through interdisciplinary education experiences; continuing education and faculty development initiatives to reduce professional isolation and improve health care; recruitment and retention efforts at the community level; and promotion of health careers activities, especially among children in underserved areas. We are fortunate to have a well-developed state-funded program, the Rural Health Education Partnership Program, and we partner with them and utilize their infrastructure.

I think I am most proud of the work our Centers do with residents. In addition to our unique AHEC interdisciplinary team rotations, all Centers develop other initiatives to immerse residents into rural communities and underserved areas. The recruitment and retention of health care professionals is our ultimate goal.

What is a typical day or workweek like for you as the Associate Director?

I really am busy! A typical week is filled with planning, research, outlining new initiatives, providing program support to Centers and participating in meetings, meetings, meetings. We do so many things now via web conferencing and conference call—it is a very efficient use of time. I monitor budgets at the five AHEC Centers, and deal with compliance and reporting issues. I also do lots of writing and editing, as well as looking for grant opportunities. I usually have at least three or four projects or activities going at once— you just have to make sure you do not multi-task too much! I also travel to conferences, go on site visits and attend AHEC Center activities. But I don’t travel in the winter too much because of West Virginia roads.

You were the first President of the WV Rural Health Association—did you help get it started?

In the mid 1990s, West Virginia had a Rural Health Alliance. It was operational for several years, and then became defunct. I was a part of the interest meeting that was held during breakfast at the NRHA Policy Institute in 2002. We formed a working group in April of that year and had a rural health planning meeting at Jackson’s Mill at the end of May. At the time, I was Director of the State Office of Rural Health Policy and our office coordinated and financed the event. It was at that meeting that there was a vote to start a state rural health association. After that, we held another meeting and formed a Steering Committee. I was selected to serve on the Steering Committee, and this group elected me as the Interim-President. So, I served as Interim President and in January 2003, we became a State of WV incorporated entity. I was the first Board President. Currently, I am a Board Member and Historian. I have devoted a lot of my time and energy to the Association because I know how important it is to have a unified voice for rural health care, and I support the vision and mission of our group.

Is there a particular health issue in West Virginia that you’d like to see more attention on in the next five years?

Yes, I would like to see more initiatives on obesity, especially for minority populations. This is definitely a national epidemic, and our state has some of the worst statistics recorded. There are various initiatives to address the issue, but one thing we need to look at is impact of this epidemic. When the young children of today become adults, what will be the burden on our health care system? How will this affect costs or the need for specific health care providers? I chair the National Rural Health Association’s Multiracial and Multicultural Committee and this is an issue that we plan to address at our annual conference in Arizona this December.


Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

Back to: Spring 2010 Issue