(Left to right) Josephine Gresko, Lance Mendoza, Gruhi Patel, and Kush Savsani
Josephine Gresko, Lance Mendoza, Gruhi Patel, and Kush Savsani teamed to win a national title. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Students triumph at prestigious interprofessional case competition

CLARION Case Competition focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in health care.

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A group of Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate and graduate students have won the prestigious CLARION Case Competition, designed to improve interdisciplinary communications within health care.

Josephine Gresko, a first-year student in the School of Pharmacy; Lance Mendoza, a graduate health administration student in the College of Health Professions; Gruhi Patel, a senior biomedical engineering major in the College of Engineering; and Kush Savsani, a sophomore biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences, won $7,500 and are the first VCU team to win the competition, beating out 16 other teams from across the country. The team also won this year’s $1,000 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award with their presentation.

“First place; go team,” Mendoza said with a laugh.

For CLARION, students are given a hypothetical problem within health care. They are asked to research, define and develop solutions to the problem. The University of Minnesota and M Health Fairview, the university’s health care system, organize and host the competition. This year’s competition focused on COVID-19 and the burnout created within the industry. Specifically, the topic addressed how to build a culture of well-being and resilience to combat the rising levels of stress in organizations and address inequities within their health care workforce.

The VCU students came up with an innovative definition for radical belonging, something the judges noted was outstanding, and created an education program to improve inclusion and diversity in the workplace. Recommended action steps included a volunteering program and a social platform.

The competition was an amazing experience, the students said. They worked across disciplines and learned about other areas of health care.

“I have walked away from this having developed so many different skills that are useful,” Gresko said. “Communication. Teamwork. Public speaking skills. Research skills. Being able to connect everything back to a central theme.”

“I am hugely proud of VCU’s team for winning this nationwide competition. Their success speaks volumes about VCU’s and our health system’s commitment to safe, high-quality care, interdisciplinary practice and health equity,” said Art Kellermann, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences at VCU and CEO of VCU Health System. I also love the fact that half the team members are from our MCV Campus and the other half from our Monroe Park Campus. And on top of that, they brought home the award for team diversity as well. Three cheers for our newest national champions!”

Developing a team

Normally, VCU has four or five teams who compete in a local CLARION competition at VCU. The winner participates in the national competition in Minnesota. This year, only four students signed up.

“I met with them after the competition, and I told them it was fate they came together,” said Melissa Burton, financial and academic coordinator at the VCU Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care, who helps run the competition.

Last fall, Burton organized an information session, where she met and decided to form a team around Gresko, Mendoza, Patel and Savsani. Patel and Savsani were the only ones who knew each other prior to the competition.

Burton encourages diverse teams and believes that played an important role in the outcome. Four different schools at VCU, both graduate level and undergraduate level, were represented.

“I tell them to have the most diverse team, because anything can happen,” Burton said.

Mendoza agreed. As a health administration major, he sees health care from a particular perspective, but being around his teammates for the competition revealed the “blind spots” he had. He understood the topic from different angles when he listened to the other members of the team.

“We are taught to think a certain way,” Mendoza said. “Hearing everybody’s perspective and how that relates to certain ideas made me realize that maybe the way I think is not always right.”

An important aspect of the project was defining the term “radical belonging.” The students said this was challenging because the instructions were vague. In the end, they defined radical belonging as “a feeling that your authentic self is acknowledged, valued, and leveraged for the common good.”

“The CLARION judges said it was one of the best definitions they saw throughout the competition,” Patel said.


The student team members said VCU staff and faculty did a great job of preparing them for the competition. Normally, the students would have competed against other VCU teams, but that was not the case this year. So, Burton organized a mock presentation with VCU faculty as judges. The students said the mock presentation and feedback played a pivotal role. The judges helped them hone their message and focus on the key themes of the project.

“The criticism was harsh, but I think it was really important to us.” Patel said. “They showed us all the loopholes we were missing from our presentation and things we need to change.”

“VCU does a great job of promoting inclusion and belonging and equity within its own system.”

Savsani agreed. He said the mock presentation forced them to radically alter key parts of the presentation. They had to modify their message and focus on the heart of the problem. He added that VCU’s emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion was valuable, because the students saw the process in action.

“Us being connected to VCU and VCU Health gave us the ability to see how a health care system operates, especially in a case that involved diversity, equity and inclusion,” Savsani said. “VCU does a great job of promoting inclusion and belonging and equity within its own system.”


Advice for other students

Burton said the university’s goal in participating in the competition is not to create a winner but to help students understand the value of working together. Health care is notorious for being siloed, and the competition gives the students a chance to talk to others within the health care field. They want students to have a meaningful experience and build real-world experiences into their resumes.

“I was so excited when I heard that they won,” Burton said. “It is such a great thing.”

VCU is one of only a handful of universities in the country with an office of interpersonal professional education that participated in the competition, according to Burton.

The members of the team said they have built long-lasting relationships through the competition and plan to remain friends. They encouraged other students to get involved in experiential opportunities at VCU.

Gresko noted that the competition was a break from academic work. She enjoyed working with the other students and collaborating. They often got dinner together when they worked on the project.

“I was always super excited to work on this,” Gresko said. “It was not like studying.”

Savsani found it to be a unique and insightful experience to work on such demanding real-world applications. He wants to go into the medical field and working with students and faculty on the medical campus was a crucial opportunity in pursuit of that goal.

“As a young undergraduate student, it is great for my personal development and my education,” Savsani said. “The experience, the teamwork, and the opportunity to solve real-life health care problems are the best part of it.”