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Athena Nguyen

MPH, Global Health & Environment and Human Factors & Ergonomics, University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health

In one sentence, what is public health to you?

Public health is working towards a more just, sustainable, and humane world.

What inspired you to study public health?

“The hardness of the plastic chairs. The warmth seeping through the cup. The sound of laughter filling the compact room. In Myanmar, after the interviews I conducted were over, there was a subtle change in the atmosphere as we sipped tea and talked of everyday things. In these relaxed moments, I saw elements of my father, mother, and brother in everyone. They reminded me of home, where family members gather together to eat and chat. They also reminded me of the challenges my own family has faced in navigating modern healthcare systems. This simple act of being with others and sharing their experiences not only reminded me of my roots, but also reinforced two key influences in my decision to study public health: the importance of maintaining human connection across cultures and the need for innovation approaches to the public health issues facing marginalized communities.

As a part of Koe Koe Tech (KKT), a health-based social enterprise in Myanmar that disseminates critical health information through its mobile application, I collected survey and interview data, drafted assessment reports, and user-tested the app for topics related to due dates, pregnancy symptoms, and intimate partner violence. Having studied public health at Santa Clara University, with KKT I was able to apply what I had learned in the field to positively impact the lives of others through public health. Through this experience, I saw the power of diversity and how social entrepreneurship could address health issues.

As a Fulbright awardee, I taught English and served as a cultural ambassador. My ability to speak English and Vietnamese gave me the versatility to immerse myself and bring others deeper into cross-cultural dialogue. I used my role to discuss mental health and healthy lifestyle choices, which gave me insight on Vietnamese community members’ attitudes towards health. Additionally, I used my time in Vietnam to understand how culture can impact the perception and adoption of health practices. I returned to the U.S. with a more informed understanding of how Vietnamese people view medicine and how other health and environmental systems impact diverse communities.

While living in Southeast Asia, I engaged first-hand with how public health operates in various cultural settings, which enabled me to connect my professional endeavors to my experiences with my family. From an early age, I witnessed my identity as a Vietnamese-American in the health system. As a public health advocate, I have seen the same juxtapositions in Myanmar and Vietnam. Healthcare is a universal need that spans across national boundaries and cultural differences but is simultaneously constrained by both. My encounters with public health issues, particularly in underserved communities, have motivated me to pursue an MPH precisely to engage with these constraints, serve as an advocate, and apply the most current methods to ensure that global public health systems can be beneficial for all.”

What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career/studies so far?

Serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant was the most rewarding experience of my career so far!

Advice:

Don’t be afraid to explore what you’re interested in. It is probably related to public health in one way or another. Everything is connected!

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

“Some major public health problems facing the world today are occupational health and safety, systemic structures of oppression in our society that increase negative health outcomes for marginalized groups, and lack of access to quality healthcare.

As I continue my graduate experience at UC Berkeley, I have become increasingly interested in occupational health and safety, particularly among vulnerable populations. Conducting research with the UC Ergonomics Research and Graduate Training program has combined my interest in community-based research and physical environmental health. Throughout my domestic and international experiences, I have witnessed how workers are exploited for material gain. In Myanmar, for example, women living in rural communities and working in agriculture were constantly exposed to pesticides and physical hazards. In Vietnam, I saw how farmers engaged in back-breaking work to provide food for their stalls and families. In the US, I have learned how people who work in agriculture often lack access to shaded areas, toilets, water stations, and adequate rest breaks. My coursework, including Global Occupational Health, Occupational Biomechanics, and Industrial Design and Human Factors, has provided me with important skills to recognize and address issues in these communities.”

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