Connecting with community through human-centered, public health lens

Rachel Varisco

Rachel Varisco, MPH ’20

Health Behavior and Health Education

All along, the master plan had called for Rachel Varisco, MPH ’20, to one day don the white lab coat, drape a stethoscope over her shoulders and recite the Hippocratic Oath.

“I wanted to be a doctor,” the Pittsburgh native said. “Like a lot of people who intend to pursue careers in healthcare, I always thought I was going to end up as a doctor.”

But two years into her undergraduate studies in Ann Arbor, Varisco took a detour that changed her life, and the countless lives she has impacted in a variety of roles outside of the traditional MD job description.

“I didn’t know that public health was a thing until my junior year at Michigan when I decided pre-med wasn’t the best route for me,” she said, “but I knew I liked helping people.”

Varisco said she started giving serious thought to other avenues of serving people and caring for their overall health after a summer trip to Peru between her freshman and sophomore years at Michigan.

I didn’t know that public health was a thing until my junior year at Michigan when I decided pre-med wasn’t the best route for me, but I knew I liked helping people.”

“I got into a program that called for us to work in hospitals, but once I got to Peru and started working with kids, that was when I realized that the work I enjoyed the most was not in the hospital—it was becoming part of the community,” she said.

Varisco spoke some Spanish at the time, but she found that winning people’s trust and being able to help them did not necessarily require complex exchanges in conversation.

“In different ways, with the kids, language was not that essential,” she said. “A smile and kindness worked wonders. And with the adults, as long as you were kind to them and they could see that you were trying and you showed them that you cared, it made a world of difference.” 

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Spanish from the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts in 2016, Varisco went on to earn a Master of Public Health degree in Health Behavior and Health Education from Michigan Public Health. She currently works as a project evaluation manager/community engagement associate at the University of California-Irvine, where she is called on to fill many roles. 

Her primary responsibility is assessing whether it is possible to make systems-level change efforts to support healthcare programs in Orange County with the goal of making them available to everyone, no matter their economic or citizenship status.

“Orange County is very diverse, so I work a lot in the community and use a very community-oriented lens to evaluate these programs,” she said. “It is essential to have the community involved and make sure the community has a voice in what is done and how it is incorporated every day.”

She worked as a health and nutrition coordinator for Pacific Clinics’ Head Start/Early Head Start program before taking on her current role. Varisco was a research assistant in the Child Health and Development Lab while at the University of Michigan, working on creating a reflective practice curriculum for staff who went out to work on lead prevention efforts to help combat staff burnout. It was a program designed to support the mental health of the staff and address the toll that constantly seeing people in need would take on these individuals.  

Trust is so important. It’s the cornerstone of everything we do in healthcare. You might be an expert on the science involved in public health, but that means nothing unless you get the buy-in of the community or individual you are serving by earning their trust.”

During her time on the Ann Arbor campus, Varisco also assisted with Motherly Intercessions, where she worked with the children of incarcerated mothers, providing social and emotional support along with tutoring. She also interacted with the mothers while they were serving time in jail, holding parenting classes to prepare them for a better relationship with their children upon being released.

Whether the focus is on mental, physical, emotional or behavioral health, Varisco said the foundation is the same.

“Trust is so important,” she said. “It’s the cornerstone of everything we do in healthcare. You might be an expert on the science involved in public health, but that means nothing unless you get the buy-in of the community or individual you are serving by earning their trust.”

Varisco said that throughout her time at Michigan Public Health, she obtained the skills she uses “to be humble, approach people with an open heart and mind, and gain their trust.”

“That way, you can truly help them,” she said. “Without that, the science is obsolete.”

Varisco said that the time she spent in the classroom of Barbara Israel, professor of Health Behavior and Health Education, and working in Israel’s Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center, has had a significant impact on her career.

“The knowledge she has to share with her students about approaching a community with humility—I use that every single day in my work,” Varisco said. “I am committed to fighting against social and health disparities. That is a part of me, and so much of who I am was honed at Michigan.”

I am consistently learning to be more aware of structural biases that contribute to social inequities and racism. And wherever my future career takes me, I am excited to engage in a lifelong commitment of growth, self-reflection and community collaboration.”

She also cited Ken Resnicow, Irwin Rosenstock Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education, and his Health Communications and Motivational Interviewing classes as being especially valuable.

“He helped give me the skills and confidence to humbly and appropriately connect with the community through a human-centered and public health lens,” she said.

Varisco said she is grateful that her education and career track took that undergraduate detour that has allowed her to explore and experience public health in an impactful and rewarding manner. 

“I am consistently learning to be more aware of structural biases that contribute to social inequities and racism,” she said. “And wherever my future career takes me, I am excited to engage in a lifelong commitment of growth, self-reflection and community collaboration.”


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