Not a mentor in title, but action—spotlight on Amy Billizon of Project Pathways

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By Regi Reyes

Amy Billizon’s name is recognizable to every Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) BUILD Project Pathways student and alum. No student enters the program without meeting her, and all experience her care. “Ms. Amy,” as the students affectionately call her, is the Program Manager of the Student Training and Research Enrichment Cores for Project Pathways. Though she is not an official mentor of the BUILD Program, she is the embodiment of everything a mentor should strive to be. 

“One time on a trip at a research conference, they lost my meal tickets, and I was stuck at this conference for the next six days! Ms. Amy made sure that I was taken care of, even though this was before I was even in the BUILD program. Mentoring often means that one has to go further than advising, sometimes they have to back their care by actions,” Myles Bartholomew, a 2020 XULA graduate, said.

Throughout her years working for Xavier University of Louisiana, Billizon has inspired many students with her dedication and compassion. When asked, dozens of students, past and present, enthusiastically spoke about how influential she has been.

“Ms. Amy had a HUGE impact on my life at Xavier and continues to be a great source of support as an alumnus,” Imari Parham, ‘19, said. “Ms. Amy was without a doubt the unofficial BUILD mom! She knew your schedule better than you did, and if you got out of line WILL find you. She also always had our best interests at heart and always had the snacks on deck. All in all, Xavier, the BUILD program, the cohorts before, my cohort and every cohort after is extremely lucky to have her.”

Parham is currently attending Meharry Medical College School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. He is only one of many students who felt like Billizon’s ever-present mentorship led to success in their academic careers. A common theme in the glowing praise given by students includes her ability to build confidence in students that are often struggling as they complete the rigorous coursework that comes with being a Xavier student. 

“I am so fortunate to be mentored by Ms. Amy. She has truly impacted my life,” Kyla Bongay-Williams, a current BUILD trainee studying neuroscience, said. “When I started research [as a BUILD student], I had a great deal of imposter syndrome. I had the idea that maybe it was not meant for me. However, Ms. Amy always lifted me up when I needed it most and reminded me that I have a place here. She has made my college experience so worth it, and I couldn’t imagine not having her as a mentor.” 

Billizon has been a Xavier employee for over a decade and has been part of the BUILD program since the program was initially implemented. 

Veronica Miles, ‘17, a member of Project Pathways' very first cohort, said that Billizon taught her valuable lessons that she still applies to her work today. 

“As a member of the first cohort, I often ran across issues that had never been addressed or weren’t even previously considered…” Miles said. “I learned the scientific art of professionalism and flexibility [from Ms. Amy]. Ms. Amy taught me, via her actions, to never allow others to see me sweat. I learned the importance of being a calm and poised presence no matter what may have gone awry elsewhere in my life.”

Miles is working as an Industry Medical Scribe and currently interviewing at institutions for entrance into medical school.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected many students. Before the outbreak of the virus, Billizon regularly organized simple bonding activities for students to participate in. After the virus caused Xavier to complete the spring 2020 semester virtually, she and other staff members found creative ways to still bring students together for some needed stress-relieving activities and fun.

Ashley Mello, a member of the class of 2020, fondly recalls the activities that she could participate in before the pandemic moved college life online.

“Through the BUILD social activities Ms. Amy planned, the program began to feel more like a supportive family looking after the academic growth of the students,” Mello said. “Ms. Amy always keeps track of us, whether it be on-campus or while we were away at conferences, and is like a school mom for so many of the students.”

After graduating with a degree in biochemistry from Xavier, Mello has set her sights on obtaining her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. She is currently enrolled at the University of Michigan in pursuit of her goal.

Billizon is also known for offering students a safe place when they need it most. Though students can’t currently visit her in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she still speaks to current students and alumni regularly. Her unending support, especially during times when students are feeling overwhelmed, is invaluable to them.

Lihn Ha, ‘18, was a Project Pathways post-baccalaureate technician for the 2018-2019 academic year. She is currently working full-time as a research assistant at the Xavier University of Louisiana College of Pharmacy. For Ha, the encouragement offered by Billizon continues to help her move forward beyond her time at Xavier.

“Ms. Amy has created a great outlet of support for all the students that she has encountered during their time at Xavier and continues to support them after,” Ha said. “Ms. Amy is the best of the best. She is a mentor and a confidante. She pushes me to be my best and to keep striving for my dreams. Even though my time [as a student] at Xavier has ended, Ms. Amy and I talk about once a month and catch up on life and what my goals are for the short and long term. She provides the support and resources to get me to where I need to be to accomplish those goals.”

Billizon regularly offers encouragement and resources to current students and helps them as they complete their undergraduate degrees. Many students come to her seeking advice.

“I really appreciate Ms. Amy for not only everything she does in BUILD but serving as a mentor,” current BUILD trainee Larry Mason said. “Ms. Amy refers to her BUILD students as her children, and it’s remarkable how helpful and insightful she is. When I was moving into the public health field, she gave me a call congratulating me on my change of major. She even pointed me in the direction of the American Public Health Association and told me to get involved because she remembered how much I enjoyed leadership. There are few mentors that will know about an opportunity and think, ‘This would be good for this student.’ Ms. Amy truly cares!”

Mason, a public health major, isn’t the only student who reported that Billizon has gone above and beyond to help them achieve their dreams. Karen Osei-Boamah, another current BUILD trainee studying biology, has been struggling with graduate school applications during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Billizon is there to offer multiple resources as Osei-Boamah navigates through the already complicated process.

“Because of COVID, I can't visit any of the schools I have applied to, [so] she put me in touch with previous BUILD cohort students who attend those schools so that I could ask them questions about the school, its location, as well as interview tips. Her support and encouragement throughout the application process have certainly alleviated some of my fears and uncertainties I had due to this abnormal year and application cycle.”

Current and former students of BUILD continue to express their gratitude to Billizon. Though she is not a mentor through the program itself, she chooses to offer students her advice, confidence, and encouragement.

Former trainee and current biomedical Ph.D. student at Penn State College of Medicine, Jazmin Stenson, ‘18, summed up all BUILD students’ feelings about Billizon:

“I feel like as an underrepresented member of the science community, there is an immense pressure to do great things. It is so much pressure that sometimes [you feel as though] if you are not perfect, you're failing. I learned from Ms. Amy and my time in the BUILD program to trust myself and be confident in my abilities as a scientist… Ms. Amy was so supportive and helpful, and she never gave up on me… She is like a ray of sunshine- a pleasure to be around! She is the personal cheerleader of all BUILD students.”

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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