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EP27 The SocioConnect App with Semran Thamer
Deborah Onakomaiya: Hey guys and welcome to another episode of I AM GPH. I'm your host, Deborah Onakomaiya. On the show today we have an alumni of GPH's undergraduate program, Semran Thamer, who graduated this year of 2018 with a Bachelor's of Science degree majoring in Global Public Health and Chemistry. Having been born in Iraq, lived in Texas and gained an education at NYU. Semran plans on using his personal experience as an immigrant and his educational background in public health to become a physician in the future. Currently, he's working on an app he co-founded called Socio Connect, which is a digital social work platform that's provided to communities. Let's go to our conversation with him. All right. Thank you so much for coming on our show today. It's awesome to have you here.
Semran Thamer: Thank you for having me.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Awesome. So to get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? About your background, how you got into public health?
Semran Thamer: Of course. I was born in Iraq and I moved with my family a couple of years ago and I grew up in a small city in Texas. And then I moved to New York for college of course. And while I was here in New York, I drew from my experiences growing up in Texas and adjusting to life as an immigrant. And I wanted to involve myself in medicine. And when I came to New York, I started working as an EMT. We were seeing a lot of the patients, recurringly the same patients over and over again. And a lot of the big issues that I was working in Hoboken were related to drug issues. And what we noticed was a lot of the same patients would come back over and over again, even after being treated. We found that it was likely to do with a lot of these patients were homeless, a lot of them were from poor backgrounds and these issues persisted over and over again throughout the same communities. So clearly there are other aspects of health then just the medical aspects that they're being treated in the hospital. I've always wanted to become a physician, but I was drawn to the public health aspects of it to see how can we make an impact in our community based on learning about the communities themselves and learning about their health profiles and seeing how we can improve the whole community's health rather than just the patients that we see in the clinic.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Well that's really important. And in addition to you being awesome and being an EMT during your undergrad, you co-founded and designed a new app called Socio Connect. Can you tell us a little bit about that app and this story of how that started?
Semran Thamer: Of course. Well, actually when my family and I first moved to America, growing up, we relied a lot on social work and a lot of the social programs that are available in our city in Texas. And that really helped us adjust a lot; find jobs, get food and over time we were able to succeed on our own. But that had a lasting impact because a lot of our success was owed to all these programs. And with the help of a lot of social workers we were able to live on our own, move out of the shelter that we lived in and sustain ourselves. So when I came to New York I wanted to give back and work as a social worker. So I started working my freshman year at Bellevue Hospital as a volunteer social worker. And during that time at Bellevue Hospital we saw a lot of patients with a lot of different issues such as poor housing or not enough food for their families. And what we did, we would help them apply for programs that are available in New York. And the great thing about New York is that there are a lot of these resources, like for example, food stamps and food pantries. They're all over the place. But, what we noticed was a lot of the patients that we'd see didn't really know about these programs. So the program that I worked with in Bellevue Hospital as a volunteer social worker, what we did was we'd go up to the patients and ask them, do you have any of these issues and let's sit down and help you find these programs that may help support you. So over time, what we noticed was, even though we were helping these patients, giving the information, it was still a very complex process to actually access a lot of these resources. Like for example, in food stamps, there's so much to do. You have to apply first, you have to submit all these documents, and it's a long process and it's very complex. Me and a few other coworkers that we worked with at the social work program, we wanted to figure out, how can we make this easier for everyone? So what we did is we, wanted to make some kind of platform. So we decided to make a mobile app and we localized all the information you need about any resources in New York, of a cover heads of range of social resources and we localized it in one place so that if anyone needs any of these resources, they could simply just open the app, answer some questions about their household and automatically get matched to all these programs. And by seeing what they qualify for, they can also see all the information they need in order to access that. So what we wanted to do is basically introduce a new kind of social work, bring technology into the field and make it so that almost anyone can find these resources on their own without having to rely on going to a hospital or being in a setting where they're offered the social work in the first place.
Deborah Onakomaiya: And the target population for this are people in underserved communities or homeless people or like the social worker, who is the target audience for this app?
Semran Thamer: So when we first started this app, we were targeting mainly on social workers themselves or other community based organizations so that they can use this tool to help their populations themselves that they're servicing.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Exactly.
Semran Thamer: But then as we were working on it, we're like, well why don't we figure out how we can make this also presentable to patients themselves or people who may need this themselves. So low income populations as well. And then we added the interface where it asks the patient or the user the questions about their household and then automatically it would determine what they may be eligible for by itself. And by doing that, we found that if it's easy to use, we can expand, not only to the social workers but also the patients themselves and the users. And then from then we've been working over the summer to include not just low income populations but also provide information about crisis resource programs. So victims of different unfortunate events or any kind of crisis situations...
Deborah Onakomaiya: Natural disaster.
Semran Thamer: Stuff like that as well. So you want it to localize all that information as well. So we're trying to mainly target any kind of crisis situation or any kind of disparate populations at all.
Deborah Onakomaiya: And is this available for download on Apple or Android or like?
Semran Thamer: So we're very happy to announce that we got our approval by Apple to post it in the App Store. So it is published, it's available for free download on the iPhone. And currently we're working on developing the Android version and soon enough we'll also have the web app as well.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Sorry, Android users.
Semran Thamer: Right. So we're working on that, but we found online that a lot of research has been done to see what kind of platform is most popular among low income populations. And we found that it's about equal between Android and an iPhone and like smartphone capabilities themselves, about 97% of food stamp users actually have access to it.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And are you marketing this app to the New York Health Department or how are you marketing this app and how are you leveraging what you have?
Semran Thamer: So we're working on marketing. The way that we're approaching this is mainly offering it to community based organizations and social workers themselves. And then from there they'd be using the app and then what we've seen is that they're offering their populations to use the app themselves.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh, that's really important. Were there any NYU resources that you found helpful? Maybe people or online sources that you want to share?
Semran Thamer: Well, definitely everybody on the team right now. We have three other NYU students working on this from different backgrounds. One is an econ major who's working on the business aspects of it. Another is a public health major like me and we also have a computer science major working on the developing aspects. So we're lucky to have all these different disciplines in one community and we're definitely taking advantage of that.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Are there any professors involved or doctors from NYU Langone involved?
Semran Thamer: Well we definitely have reached out to a lot of the professors to ask their opinion and they definitely gave us a lot of useful information and advice to get us started. We've reached out to the social work program at NYU. They helped us out, giving us some of the verbiage and the way that we should structure all the information, so that was pretty helpful. But overall, definitely a lot of the advice that we got in developing the app and how to market it came obviously from the NYU community.
Deborah Onakomaiya: We already talked about who it's designed for, your target audience and how you've expanded that. How has social work become a career path for you, if so? How did your time as a volunteer social worker at Bellevue inspire you to continue to do this type of work?
Semran Thamer: Well, when I first started with the program that I was in volunteering for social work, that was three years ago and unfortunately there was a lot of budget cuts and in order to support these programs, hospitals or other settings would have to fund this. And it's often difficult to allocate such funding for these programs. So when I first started there were about 12 desks or 12 of these similar programs throughout New York City. And then two years later, it was very disappointing to see that there were only two or three desks left and a lot of it is to do with budget cuts. So while we were seeing these programs shortening and becoming a lot smaller, we wanted to provide a way that we can provide the same kind of support but without having to make it so costly. So that's why we want it to do the free mobile app and access to the free website.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. Awesome. What activities were you involved in during your time at NYU? I mean you just graduated, congratulations. But while you were an NYU, what was your NYU experience like? What were you involved in? What were you doing?
Semran Thamer: Well, luckily, I came from a very small city in Texas and then coming all the way over here, it was very eye opening. I have a lot of opportunities available to me in New York, especially at NYU and I think I definitely took advantage for a lot of these. I started working as an EMT here. I worked as a volunteer social worker. I also was fortunate enough to work with a lot of professors and work on a couple of research projects. I also worked participating on a few competitions. A lot of these things. I was involved in the public health student council and I'm grateful to have all these varied experiences here.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. You have a rap sheet bro.
Semran Thamer: Thank you.
Deborah Onakomaiya: I would ask what roles has GPH played in helping you chart your path specifically in public health?
Semran Thamer: Well, when I first came here my freshman year, I was declared as a bio major, but after I took a public health elective, I saw this is as a whole field that I never really was introduced to. I wasn't sure about the public health major at all. But once I looked at the curriculum and saw, well there's all these classes that would definitely add and enhance my education in addition to just the sciences and I wanted to not just have just a science background and public health really, I saw it resonated throughout all my experiences and it definitely shaped the way my experience in NYU for sure.
Deborah Onakomaiya: And what class was this that opened up your eyes?
Semran Thamer: So the first one I took was health policy.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Okay.
Semran Thamer: Right.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah. And that was what just set you on that path?
Semran Thamer: Yeah it's the intro class and I took it. And then after that I looked into the major and what I really liked was that NYU offers the combined majors. So you don't really just have to do public health, but you can also choose along the other sciences. So I had the opportunity to also stick with having a science focused but also with adding the public health aspects to it too.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. And you know, you talked about being an EMT. I mean you just graduated from undergrad, how was that process, how did you become an EMT? How did that work?
Semran Thamer: Well actually, my high school had a program where you can get your certification as part of a class. So after I graduated high school I was already certified. And then when I moved to New York I looked for a few opportunities and I found one in New Jersey in Hoboken. And I've been working there ever since. It's been about two or three years. But the experiences are very amazing. The community in Hoboken is, unfortunately, underserved. But there are a lot of learning experiences there that I am very grateful for having had.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Have you found that the skills you've developed there, are you applying it to your current work or how does that play?
Semran Thamer: So I'm currently still working there, but my long term career goal is to become a physician. So actually engaging in the community and being out there in the field, I've learned a lot about what the communities look like, what the situations of the people who need this medical help are in physically. I learned about the environment and I think that's a very important aspect to have as a physician, just to not be so focused in the clinic but actually have a little bit of an idea of what it's like, that the situations that the people that you're treating are in. And I think that's very helpful in the future hopefully.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Awesome. And given the current climate we're in and reflecting on your background as an immigrant from Iraq to America, how were you able to cope, especially in this type of political climate? And what changes did you see?
Semran Thamer: I know it keeps saying this, but we're in New York City obviously it's very easy to adjust as an immigrant or as someone who might not have been born in this country. Because there's so many people like us. There's also in NYU itself, there's a lot of other people that I've met who are from similar backgrounds, have similar stories, so that definitely helped with the adjustment. I find it very easy to connect with other people here just because everybody's from such diverse backgrounds. So it didn't really feel like I was an immigrant in the first place when I moved here.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. And are there any personal stories that kind of led you along this path of wanting to continue in public service through public health, through medicine, through social work?
Semran Thamer: I mean definitely having been an immigrant definitely influenced that just because when we first moved to America, we lived in a shelter for two years and we had to adjust to actually finding a job. We had to figure out how to speak English, how to adjust and everything. And throughout that process, what I saw was while everything was changing and while we went from a very low income background and we were able to climb the ranks and finally succeed, what I noticed, what stayed the same was, whenever there was a health issue that was always a priority. So when we were not necessarily as successful, there were other priorities. For example we were more concerned with how much food we had versus what show to watch on Netflix. But I think throughout any kind of background or wherever you are, if there's an issue in health that usually becomes your priority. So I really like how health is always at a center of concern for anyone. And having the opportunity to go in there and bring someone out of a situation no matter where they're from or where they are and treat them medically is a very big opportunity that I'd love to have.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. Wow. I would ask what drives your passion? Why do you wake up every day to continue to do this work to talk about your work? Why? What inspires you to keep going? What motivates you?
Semran Thamer: Well honestly like seeing my family succeeding in America and having gone through all these hardships and obstacles, I think it would be awesome just to be able to do that for other people as well and help them and show them you know what, this is possible. Unfortunately in New York there's a lot of communities that are underserved and there's a lot of low income communities that tend to be stuck in this cycle of poverty and all these unfortunate circumstances, but being able to go out there and try to help support them and show them it's possible, you can have a better life and improve your circumstances. That definitely drives my passion, being able to, you know, here's an opportunity, let's try to get you in a better situation.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Definitely. Definitely. What advice do you have for incoming students? Especially who want to pursue a background in public health. What advice would you have from your experience?
Semran Thamer: Well, I think the biggest advice I would give is definitely reach out to your professors. The people here at NYU are all very knowledgeable, there's a lot of resources here and if you don't know where to go or don't know where to find these resources, just ask someone because they'll help you. This is NYU. A lot of people know a lot about everything that we have here. I started with my freshman year, I found an internship within a few months. I at first was overwhelmed and didn't think it would be possible to find anything in my first year, but I just reached out to the Wasserman Center- the career center, spoke to a few professors about getting my cover letter together and it worked out very well. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, but I think a lot of that has to do with just the robustness of the NYU community.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow, that's amazing. That's amazing. And what's next for you? What's on the radar? Where is Semran going to be in 10 years, five years?
Semran Thamer: Well, I'm currently working on my medical school application, so I will be applying this summer while also participating in an accelerator program for the nonprofit organization Socio Connect. What we're working on this summer is mainly trying to see how we can actually expand Socio Connect and not just focus on just the few communities that we have, the five boroughs. We're also trying to see if we can partner up with communities in Los Angeles and Atlanta because the accelerator that we're participating in is in Los Angeles and we're getting support there. So we're starting to really look into what the communities are like there and what resources are available or what other programs similar to ours are available. So we've been sitting down a lot and just reaching out to people and seeing how we can actually expand the program and maybe scale it to other cities as well.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. And are you guys reaching out to social workers or how are you guys making these network connections?
Semran Thamer: So a lot of this has been just emailing dozens and dozens of emails every day. But for the most part we've just been reaching out to hospital programs or just social work organizations, community based organizations just by Googling and finding emails. And we eventually we get a few responses and we'll go back and forth and people will give us suggestions to reach out to other people and down the line we'll eventually get connected to certain people that are helpful and we work with them.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow that's amazing. Any parting words of wisdom for our listeners?
Semran Thamer: I think definitely I graduated just two months ago and I'm already missing NYU, so have fun with your experiences and definitely take advantage of being here.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Awesome. Thank you so much, Semran for coming on our show.
Semran Thamer: Of course. Thank you for having me.