Reflections on Public Health

Lello Guluma

Lello Guluma

MPH '19, Health Behavior and Health Education

Lello Guluma’s interest in STEM started at a young age. She enjoyed the certainty of math and science, stating that “it seemed like every problem that I was given, there was a definite answer and you just have to figure that out.” Growing up in East Lansing, Michigan, she was specifically interested in space and dreamed of working for NASA.

By the time she started undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, she had switched gears, planning to pursue a pre-med track. With an open mind and desire to explore all her options, Guluma registered for Kenneth Warner’s Public Health 200 course freshman year after an advisor suggested it. Of that course, she says, “I loved it and it was absolutely amazing.”

Guluma recalls the impact public health has on communities as the factor that piqued her interest and ultimately put her on the track to obtain a bachelor's degree in International Studies and Program in the Environment with a focus in global health—all with the long-term goal of a master's degree in public health.

Coming into Michigan Public Health, Guluma considered multiple degree tracks but ultimately chose Health Behavior and Health Education because of the challenges that the discipline addresses and its foundation within public health. She says, “changing behavior is a really hard thing to do, but behavior and education underlies a lot of public health issues. If we can get people to change behavior and make the adjustments we discuss in this field, it would address  a number of issues across the disciplines.”

She says staying at Michigan for her master's degree was an easy choice. As an undergraduate, Guluma was able to participate in community-based programs. She saw tremendous opportunities to further her experience with community-based participatory research at Michigan Public Health, and to work with faculty like Barbara Israel, who would become her advisor.

Reflecting on her original interest in STEM in comparison to her public health journey so far, Guluma says, “I feel like we often deal with a lot of uncertainty in public health, but I've learned to embrace that uncertainty because life itself is full of uncertainty but there are still questions to ask and answers to be discovered.”

While Guluma says that she’s had a good experience overall, she also admits making the transition from undergraduate to graduate education has had highs and lows. She found it hard at first because the transition came with a loss of community as friends moved away from Ann Arbor. However, from an academic perspective, she says it was both challenging and rewarding. While she’s found the program to meet her original expectations overall, she’s found it surprisingly fun as well. Of her coursework, she says, “it reminded me why I became interested in Health Behavior and Health Education and what is exciting about public health.”

Citing the program as what’s set her up for the future, Guluma is looking forward to starting her professional career after graduation. She’ll be moving to Washington, D.C. to start a position with Mathematica Policy Research, where she’ll be working on domestic health policy issues. She hopes to focus her career on health disparities and social determinants of health.

On behalf of her peers in the School of Public Health, Guluma offered the following remarks to the School of Public Health community gathered for the 2019 graduation ceremony.

What does it take for a community to thrive? I found public health as a part of the solution; further improving lives and communities through access to education.
For me, public health was—and is—the key for answering large societal issues.


Lello Guluma, MPH
Remarks on Behalf of Students
Thursday, May 2, 2019

Good afternoon. I am deeply honored to be able to share this moment with you and my reflections on my public health education.

I have dreamt of this moment since sitting in my dorm room in 2013, inspired and wide-eyed. I was fresh from a public health 200 class with Ken Warner, a distinguished professor emeritus from the Department of Health Management and Policy and former dean of the School of Public Health. I said to my roommate, “I think I’ve found my passion.” I think about that moment often and sometimes chuckle at the innocence of the situation. After all, I was 17 and had found my lifelong passion, right?

Reflecting on my journey to this discipline, I realized I didn’t find public health. Rather, public health found me. Just months earlier I had embarked on my first trip outside of the United States. My mother took my brother and I to meet our extended family in Ethiopia for the first time.

A particularly powerful experience for me was meeting my paternal cousins. My cousins grew up on the same farm that my father was raised—a community named Jarso-Siree in a region called Oromia. My father is the eldest son of his father, a title that provided him certain opportunities while he was growing up. One of which resulted in him being the first in his family to earn a formal education. Now, several years later, all of my cousins are provided that same opportunity. During our trip, my cousins and I walked the path my father took when he was young—from the farm into town every day for school. The same path my cousins take to school.

I was in complete awe of my first trip to Ethiopia, however, deeply humbled. I grew up worlds—and literally an ocean—apart from this reality. My cousins walked, sometimes hours, just to get to school to earn an education. My elementary school was just down the street. When they came home, they cooked, cleaned, and harvested crops. I spent my afternoons doing homework or playing with friends.

This journey, both literal and figurative, showed me what the conditions were like to access a primary school and attain an education. The possibilities that an education offers far outweigh any obstacles like distance or competing priorities. I saw that for this community, education was key for financial security, health, well-being, and women’s empowerment. I did not realize it then, but their journey sparked a thought in me: What does it take for a community to thrive? I found public health as a part of the solution, further improving lives and communities through access to education.

For me, public health was—and is—the key for answering large societal issues. Public health is political and personal. I believed public health would give me the tools to figure these problems out. However, looking back on the past two years, public health is more than just coming up with solutions to problems.

Public health is collaboration. Working with other people, sometimes very different than us, towards a common goal.

Public health interdisciplinary. Knowing that we don’t always have the answers and should lean into our peers, colleagues, community members, and friends.

Public health is empowerment; because maybe the best answer doesn’t and shouldn’t come from researchers, but rather the community.

Public health is political; recognizing that Black Lives Matter; climate change is real; knowing Flint still doesn’t have clean water; that so many undocumented people go without access to healthcare; and so much more.

Public health is the relentless pursuit of a more just, equitable, liberating, and healthier world, both individually and collectively.

Public health is me. A first-generation girl from a family of immigrants. Reflecting that public health has the power to change not only her life, but her family's lives, for the better. Relentlessly pursuing an education that would allow her to do so.

It has been said, “Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path— yet, as people are walking all the time in that same spot, a way appears.”

Public health is hope and we are all walking along that path.

Public health is you all, Class of 2019, and your respective journeys that brought you here to this very moment.

Congratulations and Go Blue!