Diversity of Global Health Graduating Class Reflects Program's Broad Reach

By Patricia Yollin

The newest graduates of UCSF’s Global Health Sciences masters program are idealistic but well aware that they don’t live in an ideal world. They’re not going to let that stop them.

“There’s a lot of momentum now,” said Jessica Gu, 26, who spent April and May in Zanzibar on a malaria prevention project.

Gu was among 35 students who received their master of science degrees Aug. 3 at Genentech Hall on the Mission Bay campus. The commencement ceremony marked the end of the fourth year of the program, which graduated only seven students in its inaugural class but will have 42 next year – paralleling the prodigious growth of the field as a whole.

The program is the oldest of its kind in the nation, but it’s still very young, said keynote speaker Haile Debas, MD, founding executive director of UCSF Global Health Sciences (2003-2010) and former chancellor of the university as well as past dean of the medical school.

“We believe therefore it needs to be nurtured and cared for most tenderly,” said Debas, who provided a “highly partisan overview” to the audience in Byers Auditorium.

Program Director John Ziegler, MD, MSc, who gave the welcoming address, said he admired the prescience of Debas and his ability to have foreseen a growing interest in global health.

Jaime Sepulveda, MD, MPH, DrSc, executive director of Global Health Sciences at UCSF, referred to this phenomenon over the past 10 or 15 years as "an expansion — I would call it an explosion — of global health will to transform the world.”

Debas said he frequently is asked what gives him the most hope in the face of constant turmoil all over the planet.

“For that, I do not hesitate a second,” he said. “The answer is the young generation, the millennial generation, the first generation to consider itself truly global. It is undeterred by space and time. Just look at your class.”

Students in the class of 2012 grew up in a dozen different countries, speak at least 11 languages and arrived from many distinct disciplines, with research paths that have taken them to no less than 16 countries, he noted.

“This is true globalism,” said Debas, adding that the students’ varied backgrounds, passion, energy and commitment have infused the program with vitality and have made it “a unique environment of intellectual discourse, friendship and sharing.”

Diversity will further increase with the class of 2013. Of the 42 students, more than half are from the United States, but six are from Africa, three from the United Kingdom, two from South America, and one each from the Middle East, Canada, the Pacific Islands and Mexico. The class will have 38 women and four men.

Megan Barry, who helped present a slideshow of the students’ year, described her class as a “tightly knit crew.” The camaraderie was evident repeatedly during the high-spirited gathering.

After the ceremony, Gu, the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, said there had been “lots of peer leadership” during the yearlong program and that “everyone had something under their belt” when they showed up at UCSF.

For example, Kathryn Chomsky-Higgins, who at 32 is one of the older students in the program, already had completed three years of medical school. She’ll return for a fourth year and then do a residency. Eventually, she wants to be a general surgeon, combining fieldwork with policy pursuits and project management.

During the ceremony, Sepulveda said UCSF wants to create agents of change and urged the students to have a social conscience, defend the vulnerable, follow their instincts and passions, and sustain a sense of urgency.

“There are many people right now suffering in many places around the world,” Sepulveda said.

Graduate Jacob Zannou plans to focus his efforts in Africa as president of World Action Group, a nonprofit that he hopes will generate funding and infrastructure for a viable health care system.

The 39-year-old Benin native, the son of a fisherman, has worked as a bedside nurse for almost 12 years – the last two at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. He’ll concentrate first on French-speaking West Africa, which he said is disconnected and often overlooked by funders because of the lack of English.

In trying to figure out what was most needed in that region, he asked the woman who delivers 40 to 50 babies a month in his own village what would be most helpful. The simple answer: gloves and alcohol.

“That’s the reality of rural Africa,” Zannou said.

Photos by Susan Merrell