Nosheen Hayat, MPH '17, is one of two students selected to address the audience this Thursday at UMSPH's graduation. She will emphasize her gratitude for community and how excelling in public health will honor the sacrifices her family made for her.
Nosheen is a first-generation college student who studied dietetics as an undergraduate. She chose Michigan because she wanted to work on agricultural systems and food insecurities and knew that SPH offered many opportunities in these areas. As a Gates Millennium Scholar and also a recipient of the Dean's Scholarship, she receives funding for her graduate work in public health nutrition.
Even as a prospective student, Hayat felt truly valued. Faculty and staff reached out to her repeatedly during the admissions process, and this deep sense of support has continued throughout her time here. "I can't overemphasize how supportive everyone is at SPH—not only my professors but professors in other departments and staff across the board," says Hayat. "SPH is so dedicated to helping students progress in their careers and realize their visions for public health. Because my views were always highly valued, I've grown in confidence—professionally and personally."
A highlight of Hayat's time at SPH was her summer internship at Growing Hope, a community organization in Ypsilanti focused on increasing access to healthy food. Hayat offered nutrition presentations at farmers markets and led nutrition education workshops for communities in Ypsilanti. She brought people onto Growing Hope's on-site farm and helped teach them how to grow, harvest, prepare, and cook fresh produce. "A farmers market is a microcosm of public health," Hayat muses. "Many different entities are represented—farmers, consumers, educators, communicators, customer service folks, the food, the environment. You can learn a lot about a community at a market."
Hayat gained many technical skills during the internship but says her most valuable lesson was the importance of building relationships and engaging communities. "By the end of the summer, I felt like part of the Ypsilanti community," says Hayat. "Ultimately, public health is about relationships, about creating a sense of deep support within and across communities."
In her graduation address, Hayat wants to talk more about community. Her experiences at SPH reinforced for her the importance of investing in relationships. "Without connections, the impact of our work is diminished," she says. "None of my work matters until it actually helps someone, until it finds a home and has an impact with a community."
Members of Hayat's home community will be here this week to celebrate her successes with her. Hayat was born and raised in Jhelum, a small village in northern Pakistan. Her grandfather came to the states first, eventually asking his employer to sponsor her father, who was a domestic worker for a World Bank official. Seeing what people at this organization accomplished with their educations inspired her father to pursue higher education for his own children. "If my dad didn't have that vision, I wouldn't be here right now," Hayat explains. "It wasn't common for people in my village to invest in a daughter's education during his time. I'm sure he faced a lot of opposition in our home village. My mother moved thousands of miles away from home, not knowing English, to do this for her children."
Hayat's father eventually started his own business and is now a successful contractor in the D.C. area. Hayat is eager to see where her degree in public health takes her and hopes her work will mean the world not only to the communities she serves but to the community that helped her get here. "Both my parents have spent their entire adult lives committed to the vision of helping their children have the capacity to make an impact on the world," she says. "I can't really repay that, but I can honor their sacrifices by taking my education and all that I've received and using that to help others."
William Lopez completed a PhD in health behavior and health education in September 2016 and is one of two SPH graduates selected to address the audience this Thursday at UMSPH's graduation.
Lopez is the son of a Mexican immigrant mother and Texan father. He grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and completed an undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Notre Dame. He returned to Texas for an MPH at the University of Texas–Houston and then moved to Ann Arbor to work on a joint project with the Institute for Social Research and the Medical School.
While earning his master's in Houston, Lopez worked at a homeless services center. During his doctoral work in Ann Arbor, he worked in Detroit with the Detroit Youth Passages Project and later volunteered with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR)—a community organization that responds publicly to immigration raids. These experiences galvanized Lopez's commitment to community-based research and to a public health career that emphasizes service.
Specifically, while conducting a survey-based research project on immigration in 2013, a large immigration raid went down in Ypsilanti, giving Lopez and his team a unique opportunity to study immigration enforcement. Lopez interviewed many of the families involved in the raid, and the work evolved into his dissertation. Since last November's elections, Lopez's research has been in high demand, and he has appeared regularly on radio shows and in newspapers. "I wouldn't say I've been fortunate, because we wish this work didn't have to happen," Lopez says. "But in public health, we're aware that our work and careers are intertwined with the suffering of others. We know we have to do this work with humility and do it well."
In his graduation address, Lopez will focus on the tensions inherent to public health work. Will I do quantitative or qualitative work? How much education do we need before we begin our career? "Human health itself presents daily tensions between the biological and the social," says Lopez. "If there is no transportation to the store or no money to buy the vegetables we're trying to convince you to eat, arguments about nutritional science don't matter."
Public health can help us get more comfortable with these tensions, Lopez argues, because public health as a discipline is fundamentally about living with difficult decisions. We are often forced to make decisions about how active we are in communities. "We can't address everything at once, so we have to choose where to focus our efforts in public health," he will tell his peers. "And then we have to develop some level of comfort with the tensions that arise from our decisions so we can continue to do good work."
Lopez plans to use the skills he's gained at SPH to continue addressing immigration enforcement and violence. "It's important to me that my career path doesn't overshadow the goal of pursuing health equity," Lopez says. "I don't want to let the jobs available to me determine what I do. I want to let the goal of health equity dictate what career path I take. This might put me awkward situations, but this is one of the tensions of public health."
Sometimes we have to create our own paths, in public health and in other fields. Sometimes this means engaging deeply with unfortunate and difficult areas—such as immigration violence. "But if we are the ones who are best positioned to work with these topics," Lopez states, "then that becomes our calling. We came to SPH because we're uncomfortable. We want to make people healthier, but we understand that health is also complicated, subjective, cultural. We came to learn about it, to learn how to do it right, and to learn how to apologize when we get it wrong and do it better. Discomfort is nothing new to our field."
Lopez knows he and his peers will have to make difficult decision in defining their careers in the vast universe of public health. He hopes they will be inspired and empowered to pursue those paths wholeheartedly. "And then," he will remind them, "you'll have to exist with the tension of not being able to accomplish everything you'd like but to accomplish what you can and do it exceptionally well.