A few months ago, Jordan Seto was sitting in a roomful of volunteer student leaders — members of the Health Equity Circle — when someone spoke up. Look at us, she said: mostly white, mostly middle- or upper-class. Most of us are not like the communities we’re serving. Are we helping or hindering? The discussion that followed left a real impression.

“We realized that even some of our interventions were based on our shared privilege,” says Seto. “I’ve been struggling ever since to bring my awareness of privilege to everyday life.”

That said, Seto, now a 24-year-old medical student, has been mindful of cultural and economic differences since she was young. Her family lived in
Malaysia for a year when she was 9, exposing her to extreme levels of both wealth and poverty; a trip to India when she was 12 was similarly eye-opening. Her teen years were spent in a town where most families didn’t have much money.

It was her time at Mount Holyoke College, however, that really pushed her sense of social justice to the fore. Seto majored in biochemistry, but she found a spiritual home at the college’s community-based learning program. “All of a sudden, I was shoved out of my ivory tower and could work with people who didn’t have the smooth path I’d had,” Seto says.

It’s not surprising that Seto gravitated to a similar program at the UW School of Medicine: the Service Learning Resource Center.

In service learning, medical students work with community programs to improve lives. After choosing to participate in the School’s Health Equity Circle, Seto set to work on the Best Starts for Kids Levy, intended to increase funds for health services for children from marginalized communities. Her responsibilities grew, from producing documents, to co-chairing public meetings. Then came the request to lead an assembly that might include King County Executive Dow Constantine.

“I balked at first,” says Seto. “But with some coaching and hand-holding, I stood up in front of 129 people, including Dow’s representative. I cracked terrible jokes and worked the audience as best I could.”

Service learning, in short, has been a major inspiration for Seto, who is considering a career in family medicine. And expect to hear from her in the future: Seto plans to advocate not only for her patients, but also for everyone who suffers from inequity.

“We don’t have enough community leaders in the U.S. that are raising the voices of the underprivileged,” Seto says. “I want to start changing that.”