May 03 2016

Chey Onuoha Says: Don’t Mess With Texas

In the days leading up to Commencement, the Mailman School website will feature first-person accounts from nine members of the graduating class as they reflect on their singular paths into public health, some of the surprising lessons they took away from their experience at the Mailman School, and their aspirations for the years ahead.

Among others, you’ll meet a former high school teacher who excelled in the lab while working to overcome the “imposter syndrome”; an executive who teamed up with “Jeopardy”-beating technology to improve cancer outcomes; an aspiring physician who hit on the winning formula for compassionate care; and a scholarship-winning MHA grad set on making his mark at the Mayo Clinic.

Or maybe you already know them.

In the first in the series, Chey Onuoha, MPH ‘16 in Sociomedical Sciences, talks about her wish to improve the odds for young women’s access to reproductive health in her native Texas. 

Like many of her classmates, Onuoha has been weighing post-graduation options. One big question: stay in New York or return to her native Texas. On April 14, she got a whole lot of advice—from more than 2,000 people on Facebook after she was profiled on Humans of New York (the top comment reads, “Please come back to Texas! We need you!”) In a conversation with, Transmission she shared some background on her public health journey:


Growing up where half my family was from small town Texas and the other had solid roots in Nigeria was interesting for many reasons. Some of my favorite memories relate to various superstitions I learned as fact: I spent my days spitting on brooms, pulling wishbones, and avoiding the “bad juju” of black cats. When it came to health, my life was filled with diving my finger in a package of butter when burned and using saltwater to cure a sore throat. I later came to learn that there are numerous definitions of health and equally as many barriers to it—and that the field of public health was a way to break down those barriers while preserving cultures and communities.

As an undergrad, I learned about the socioeconomic nature of health in the classroom, but it was my time with AmeriCorps and Communities in Schools that showed me firsthand how education and life circumstances make a difference. I worked in an Austin middle school addressing the social issues affecting the health of my students, and this often included providing sex education. For the girls that were pregnant or at risk of becoming pregnant, we taught about anatomy, contraception, domestic violence, and what healthy relationships look like. These lessons were new to many of them and often incited giggles; some girls couldn’t even say the word “breast” without their cheeks going red and the group bursting into laughter. Texas state law doesn’t require sex ed, and when it’s taught, the emphasis is often on abstinence.

My time at Mailman has been full of experiences that remind me why I pursued a degree in public health.  On the first day of my Foundations of Public Health class, Dr. Amy Fairchild showed us how race, class, and social issues impact health while Lauryn Hill played in the background. The Core was rigorous, but I knew, from that class onward, that public health was where I belonged. Later that semester, I found comfort in my peers when we came together to call for an end to police brutality. I marched in the streets of New York City alongside my peers shouting at the top of our lungs that Black Lives Matter!

We organized a student-led open forum with more than 400 students, faculty, and staff to address racism within Columbia, the community, and the public health profession; later we collaborated with Dean Fried to conduct a literature review of racial justice matters. Leaving Mailman, I feel overwhelming comfort in knowing that I have so many likeminded classmates who will soon be colleagues equally as eager as I am to continue addressing the social issues impacting health.

During my time at Mailman, I also worked with Project STAY [Services to Assist Youth]  through the Harlem Health Promotion Center. I provided sex ed and HIV and STI testing for youth, particularly the hardest-to-reach individuals who have been involved with the criminal justice system or LGBT and homeless. 

After graduation, I want to continue in sexual and reproductive health so I can work alongside communities to find solutions that bring immediate and systemic change. Ultimately, I know I will return to Texas, my heart and home. Since the TRAP [Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers] laws/policies were passed, about half the clinics in Texas have closed. Limiting access to healthcare mostly affects marginalized communities—black and Latino people, and particularly young people. I am eager to use the skills and knowledge I gained at Mailman to improve lives of my fellow Texans whose access to care has been stifled.