Exploring public health through a cross-cultural lens
BS student, Public Health Sciences
Traveling through rural areas of other countries in her youth gave Helena Helme an introduction to public health.
“I grew up traveling overseas with my parents to visit their hometowns, and I think that opened up my perspective of health around the world,” said Helme, whose mother is from Brazil and father hails from France.
“Seeing those places at a young age and now connecting them to what’s happening in the world really made me realize how much public health matters. Having this wide, cultural perspective has really encouraged me to understand why getting a degree in public health is so crucial.”
Helme is a senior, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Public Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She is expected to graduate in May 2024.
Brazil, for example, has a unified health system, but there still are so many challenges for accessing healthcare, Helme said, due to understaffing and overcrowding of people, especially within rural communities like the ones she would visit.
“Once I realized that public health was out there, and it not only is a vast field but also has a lot of career opportunities, I decided I would apply to the School of Public Health from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.”
“Those kinds of disparities were more accentuated in rural areas,” she said. “Compared to the overall country, those populations are less educated and have a lower socioeconomic status. Among them, individuals like agricultural workers who live in poor housing conditions are particularly vulnerable.
“My biggest takeaway was that just because Brazil has a unified health system, it doesn't necessarily mean it’s accessible to everyone. There are a lot of obstacles like funding, consistent administration, and inconsistent political motivations. This mix prevents hospitals and healthcare facilities from being organized regionally, which would be a better model.”
Even though Helme already had a major interest in public health, once she took an introductory course, she was hooked.
“Originally, I knew I wanted to do healthcare and was leaning toward maybe going to pharmacy school or something like that,” Helme said. “However, once I realized that public health was out there, and it not only is a vast field but also has a lot of career opportunities, I decided I would apply to the School of Public Health from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.”
Helme was in her sophomore year when she set her sights on applying to the upper-level Public Health bachelor’s degree program. It was another transition that had marked an eventful start to her college career.
She started out as a freshman at Michigan State University during the 2020-21 school year, but, due to pandemic lockdowns, never stepped foot on the East Lansing campus. She also struggled to find a major at Michigan State, so that made her decision to transfer to her hometown university an easy decision.
“I always liked growing up in Ann Arbor and I always knew I really wanted to go to Michigan,” Helme said. “It just ended up working out really well because Michigan has the undergraduate public health program and I could major in public health.”
While she was in LSA, Helme helped with a research project for a professor within the Department of American Culture Latina/o Studies (LS).
“She was working on a publication for the history of breastfeeding in Brazil,” Helme said. “It was a lot of maternal and infant health research and data collection that I helped her with for about a year. That was my first research role as a university student, and it was a really interesting way to combine my knowledge of Brazil and interest and background in Brazil, but also learn about maternal infant health in that context. We did a lot of supplemental research and reading on how the public health system developed because of the push for improving maternal and infant health outcomes.”
Thanks to that experiential learning experience, Helme is open to continue working in the maternal and infant health space after she graduates. She also likes that public health can effect change on a grand scale.
“With public health, I hope to address issues in Brazil and other parts of the world I have seen, as well as the health crises we face here in the US and be able to work on a greater health system on a larger scale—even nationally or globally,” she said. “With public health, I can do that. You have more of an opportunity to foster larger scale change. That's what drew me to public health rather than pre-med or pharmacy or nursing.”
Outside of public health, Helme is a member of the pre-health professional fraternity organization Delta Epsilon Mu (DEM) on the Ann Arbor campus.
With public health, I hope to address issues in Brazil and other parts of the world I have seen, as well as the health crises we face here in the US and be able to work on a greater health system on a larger scale—even nationally or globally.”
“I've had some leadership roles with DEM since I got here,” she said. “It’s been a really nice way to meet people from all kinds of health tracks. It’s been a great way to meet people with the same ambitions as you but are kind of working at it in a different way and something that really helped with my transition to this campus. I also love to read and really enjoy running as well.”
Helme, who aims to earn a master’s degree one day in public health, first wants to gain some real-world experience.
“I want to work with healthcare systems doing some kind of consulting or analyst work,” she said. “I think that will be a really good way to start off my public health career. It will be a great benefit to figure out how the healthcare systems work in real life and really live through it before taking the next step and focusing on doing some maternal and infant health work and going back to school and specializing in something.”