Early in 2014, Beza Ayalew ’09 was just getting settled in her apartment in Atlanta, ready to start her new role as an Association for Prevention Teaching and Research/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Practice and Policy Fellow in the Public Health Practice and Policy Branch.
As a fellow, Ayalew will lead policy and interprofessional education projects to strengthen the health workforce to improve the public’s health.
But when Ayalew first came to Denison as a first-year student in the fall of 2005, the CDC wasn’t even on her radar. “I entered Denison with what I thought was a clear career path. I thought I knew what I wanted, but it turns out I didn’t really.”
“Pay attention to what gets you excited, and be honest with yourself. That can be the hardest part, because sometimes it’s not what you started out thinking would be your major.”
She began her undergraduate education as a pre-med major in biology. It was a path of study that seemed to be a good fit for her. From a young age, she developed an interest in health and wellness because her parents emphasized the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. She was also aware that some of her relatives had passed away from preventable water-borne diseases in Ethiopia. And while she very much enjoyed those biology classes, it turned out to be a sociology/anthropology class she took during her second year that really peaked her interest.
“I realized that I could examine health issues at a macro level and understand the systems that impact population health, and that really excited me,” says Ayalew, whose work is now within the Division of Scientific Education and Professional Development at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While studying abroad in Geneva, Switzerland and as a research assistant at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she evaluated the complexities that arise when providing water and sanitation relief to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. And as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and through her Honors Senior Thesis Project, Ayalew specifically explored: “Water Access and Latrine Sanitation Effect on Infant Health in Ethiopia.”
Professor Kent Maynard was especially influential during Ayalew’s time at Denison. “He was always challenging me to improve my writing and to think more critically,” she says. “And his door was always open.”
Maynard brought her attention to the field of public health and encouraged Ayalew to apply for a Fulbright scholarship. “I wasn’t even aware of the Fulbright program or of public health as a possible career path, but Professor Maynard and I had so many illuminating talks. These became real possibilities for me,” she says.
During her Fulbright with Simon Fraser University and the British Columbia Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Ayalew conducted research, reviewed literature and prepared a manuscript for publication about the stigma and self-perceived body image of HIV-positive people on treatment in British Columbia, which solidified her interest in public health and led to her master’s degree in Public Health from Boston University. After her master’s she began supporting the Early Childhood Mental Health Program within the Child, Adolescent and Family Health Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission. One of her most rewarding professional experiences has been serving as a Community Organizer for the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, a community-based organization that promotes healthy eating and physical activity in Mattapan, a neighborhood of Boston.
She’s delighted with her role at the CDC, and looking back on her college and professional life so far, Ayalew has some advice for current students:
“College is about much more than getting good grades,” she says. “Enjoy the whole liberal arts experience: take your professor out to lunch, expose yourself to different ways of thinking, and get involved on campus.”
She also says it’s best to avoid getting too bogged down in trying to figure out what your major should be. “It will all work out,” she says. “Pay attention to what gets you excited, and be honest with yourself. That can be the hardest part, because sometimes it’s not what you started out thinking would be your major.”
Read more about Beza Ayalew's prestigious CDC Fellowship in the Spring 2014 Posse Foundation Newsletter.