Marcus Poindexter

Graduate student in Pitt's School of Social Work and Graduate School of Public Health

At the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, a Pitt graduate student counseled a young woman seeking guidance about the next steps in her life. The student, Marcus Poindexter, was earning a master's degree in clinical social work at the University of Pittsburgh. He also contributed some of his time as a health advocate at the Urban League, where he helped community members address the many factors that influence health, including relationships, economics, stress, and lifestyle choices.

“You’re meeting the person where they’re at, and helping them navigate the life course as best as possible,” he says about his in-service hours to the community.

Poindexter is representative of the hundreds of Pitt social work students who log the collective equivalent of $6 million in services to Pittsburgh-area communities annually. All Pitt graduate and undergraduate social work students contribute community service hours before they go into the world as full-fledged professionals, helping to address significant societal challenges.

For Poindexter, the one-on-one counseling sessions on health and wellness also raised memories from his childhood in the largely African American neighborhood of Homewood—where parents, aunts and uncles, adult siblings, and neighbors were often the primary influences on whether or not community members sought health care—and where, when, and how.

Increasingly, he became aware of the larger, systemic barriers to health care facing the African American community. So, not long after earning his master's degree in 2010, he returned to Pitt to continue his graduate studies. Today, he is pursuing joint degrees as both a PhD student in the School of Social Work and a master's degree student in the Graduate School of Public Health's Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences.

Previously, Poindexter served as an investigator on a project evaluating the “buddy system,” examining the effectiveness of peers to improve diabetes care. It draws upon the influence of social support networks he observed as a child growing up in Homewood. The buddy system tool is designed to help African American adults manage type 2 diabetes, but it also seeks to address larger issues: How do experiences of racism and discrimination hinder chronic disease management? How can we eliminate the barriers to care, to reduce health disparities and ensure longer lifespans?

“The idea of the buddy system is that these friendships are transferrable in all settings. Having a second, trusted person in the exam room provides that element of someone who is listening and part of the entire experience—and then is able to translate back to the patient what was said. Then, all of a sudden, that’s where the medical encounter has happened.”

On top of his academic pursuits these days, Poindexter still finds time to volunteer with communities across the greater Pittsburgh region, with particular focus on health and wellness to empower the region’s African American community. He also donates his social work expertise to a multitude of other groups and organizations in the community, working with youth on mental and physical health services, instilling the belief that change is always possible, at any stage of life.

“The core of why I went into social work is service,” he says. “I plan to maximize service as much as I can.” It’s hard work at times, but for Poindexter and his dedicated peers, it’s a no-brainer. Paying it forward isn’t just job training, or a stepping-stone to a career; it’s a way of life.