Public Servant of the Year Yolanda Ogbolu

Experience as a neonatal nurse practitioner sent the School of Nursing associate professor on a mission to study health care disparities and the social determinants of health.

Every fall, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) commemorates our rich history and celebrates the future we’re building together during Founders Week, which this year runs Oct. 24-27. Among the highlights of Founders Week is recognizing the extraordinary work of our faculty, staff, and students with awards that signify outstanding accomplishment in academics, public service, research, entrepreneurship, and education. Leading up to Founders Week, we will highlight the award winners every Wednesday on The Elm. For more information on UMB’s annual celebration and associated events, please check out the Founders Week website.

Public Servant of the Year: Yolanda Ogbolu, PhD, CRNP-Neonatal, FNAP, FAAN

Yolanda Ogbolu, PhD, CRNP-Neonatal, FNAP, FAAN, spent 20 years working as a neonatal nurse practitioner, caring for premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). But rather than merely treating these fragile infants, she decided to find out why so many of them where there in the first place.

“During these two decades, I became increasingly interested in understanding the root causes related to increased risk for premature death and illness for people of color, specifically for babies in the NICU,” said Ogbolu, associate professor and chair of the Department of Partnerships, Professional Education, and Practice at the University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON). “When I returned to UMB for my doctoral studies, it deepened my understanding and knowledge related to social justice, health equity, and the social determinants of health.

“While I loved looking in the eyes of babies one at a time, I began to believe that a larger and more strategic approach to health inequities could save even more lives. Armed with this knowledge, I have dedicated my career to focusing on the root causes of poor health to improve the lives of families in marginalized communities.”

Ogbolu didn’t limit her research to babies born prematurely in Baltimore, the city where she was born and raised. She looked at the issues from a global perspective as well. In addition to her research on health disparities in neonatal outcomes, her other funded projects have addressed cultural competency, social determinants of health, and community social isolation. Her international efforts have sought to improve nursing practice in low-resource communities including Nigeria and Rwanda. Trained in dissemination and implementation science at the National Institutes of Health, she has served as an expert consultant for the World Health Organization and others.

“Learning that 99 percent of newborns that die globally die in low- and middle-income countries was interesting to me, and my interest expanded in addressing disparities within the U.S. and looking at inequities between countries,” said Ogbolu, who also is co-director of UMSON’s Center for Health Equity and Outcomes Research and chair of the Social Determinants of Health Taskforce for Baltimore City. “I have learned that Baltimore is not alone in the challenge it faces with health inequities; there are many cities on the globe with similar challenges, offering opportunities for shared solutions.”

For her extensive teaching, research, community service, and advocacy in addressing health disparities, Ogbolu was named the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) 2022 Founders Week Public Servant of the Year. “My initial reaction was one of gratitude. I am thankful for the recognition and the appreciation of the work,” she said of the honor, her third from UMB after winning a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Recognition Award in 2014 and being named a Champion of Excellence in 2015.

Jane Kirschling, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Bill and Joanne Conway Dean of UMSON, said Ogbolu’s recognition “provides a powerful example of how the multiple missions of UMB — education, research and scholarship, teaching, clinical care, and service — can come together within an individual’s body of work.”

“Dr. Ogbolu’s contributions go to the core of UMB’s mission: to improve the human condition and serve the public good of Maryland and society at large,” Kirschling added. “Her multiple accomplishments affirm that dedication, hard work, rigorous application of one’s intellect, and devotion to a purpose larger than oneself can shine light on recalcitrant and complex issues and foster true progress.”

Meg Johantgen, PhD, RN, associate professor emerita at UMSON, who has known Ogbolu for nearly two decades, said her colleague’s career “illustrates a tenacious emphasis on learning and working with disadvantaged populations. Like other large cities, Baltimore is challenged by significant racial disparities in infant mortality, and as a neonatal nurse practitioner, Dr. Ogbolu observed this firsthand. These experiences and the desire to make a difference are reflected in all of her scholarly pursuits.

“In addition, Dr. Ogbolu’s mentorship and collaboration are constantly solicited by faculty, staff, and students. Despite her administrative responsibilities and active research program, she continues to strive to help others in improving the health of the underserved.”

As chair of the Social Determinants of Health Taskforce of Baltimore City, which was formed in May 2018, she leads a group that is charged with identifying and examining the negative social factors that cause hardship for Baltimore City residents, span generations, and are cyclical in nature and for developing and implementing solutions that improve the social, material, economic, and physical conditions of residents.

The pandemic forced the task force to pivot its focus to COVID-19-related issues and concerns. Among its efforts, the group collaborated with Simmons Memorial Baptist Church to launch a COVID-19 screening and testing center in West Baltimore; initiated a telehealth-based COVID support center at the church with volunteer doctors, nurses, clergy, and trained community health workers; and shared knowledge through publications and radio shows.

Ogbolu’s longstanding passion for addressing global and local inequities resulted in her designing a three-year, $950,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop the Global Learning for Health Equity Network, a program she co-directs with faculty in the UMB Center for Global Engagement. The national network is examining ways to learn from other countries to address health care inequities in local communities and builds on Ogbolu’s work in applying lessons from Brazil to issues of family isolation in West Baltimore.

The key to efforts such as the Baltimore task force and the global learning network is collaboration, Ogbolu says.

“Over the years, I’ve learned to collaborate across sectors to improve the social factors that impact health,” said Ogbolu, who holds a secondary appointment as an assistant professor in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Master of Public Health program. “The greatest satisfaction of my work is my willingness to reach across to partners into other sectors and say, ‘Let’s work together to make a difference in our community.’ Supporting and catalyzing powerful community members to activate change in their community brings me joy. I stand in solidarity with marginalized populations because, in part, my liberation is tied to theirs.”

In September, Ogbolu was a guest speaker at UMB’s inaugural Faculty Convocation. In her remarks, she recalled growing up just around the corner from the University and how the hashtag #UMBtotheCore, seen on core values banners around campus, has special meaning to her because of her roots.

“I love that hashtag because it reminds me of growing up in Baltimore,” she said. “There was a statement we used to say: ‘We are Baltimore to the core.’ And in this phrase, there’s a message of deep love for our city and for its beauty, in good times and bad. So I’m extremely blessed to be at home in Baltimore and at UMB.”

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