May 12 2016

Fatima Riaz: Keep Fighting

In the days leading up to Commencement, the Mailman School website is featuring 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”; a Texas native intent on improving the odds for young women’s access to reproductive health in her home state; 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.

Environmental Health Sciences graduate Fatima Riaz is the only one in her department to go for a Global Health Certificate—but she’s no stranger to forging her own path. As an undergraduate student in her home country of Pakistan, she fought against norms to help establish the country’s first student-led public health organization. At the Mailman School, she found inspiration and a community of peers to lean on:

 

I often jokingly credit the movie Contagion for piquing my interest in public health—but, in reality, it was a lot more than Matt Damon’s stellar acting that drew me in. I saw an acute lack of mobilization and awareness around health in my community, so as an undergraduate student, I founded Pakistan’s first public health student organization. More than 500 advocates came together for the cause, actively working to prevent disease and promote health education. After leading campaigns on issues like malnutrition and tuberculosis, I partnered with the Global Poverty Project to run the Pakistan chapter of the End of Polio Campaign.

After nearly two and a half years of working in the sector, I realized how reductionist it was to define public health as simply the “health of the public.” All my enterprise and enthusiasm aside, I was cognizant that to gain credibility and insight, and to become a more effective advocate, I needed to get my MPH. New York City and Columbia had always been a dream of mine, and the Core curriculum really drew me in. My work in Pakistan showed me the merits of a holistic public health approach— the gamut of subjects taught during the Core, from health economics to social determinants, catered to that very philosophy.

For my practicum, I returned to Pakistan to work with the World Bank on water and sanitation projects and with the International Rescue Committee to help prevent violence against adolescent girls living in humanitarian crises. My peers in the global health cohort were scattered all over the world working on projects and taking distance learning classes, but we battled time zones to have support sessions when assignments were due and to help each other out. For one assignment with the World Bank, I was tasked with designing a survey—but I hadn’t taken a survey design class. Collaboration in public health is the key to success, so I teamed up with a friend who had the relevant coursework and he coached me through the entire process. It’s very similar to our experience in the Core: we’re all from different disciplines, but we come together to support each other in our diverse endeavors.

I don’t really feel qualified to impart wisdom—I still get toothpaste on my shirt in the morning—but life has taught me one invaluable lesson: when the urge to quit becomes overwhelming, that’s your cue to keep going. When I worked on polio eradication in Pakistan, a school official threatened to expel me because I was working with foreign NGOs. And when I founded the public health society, everyone said it would be a failure, that the mostly-male student body wouldn’t accept a female president. Today, that society still exists, and it’s going strong. The real battle wasn’t about proving my naysayers wrong—it was a battle with myself to keep going, when I all wanted to do was throw my hands up and surrender.

This semester, I’ve been interning at UNICEF, carrying out communication and advocacy strategies for their maternal and child health campaign. And right now, I’m on the job hunt—I’m interested in global health projects aiming to strengthen primary healthcare systems in resource-constrained settings Primary healthcare can really make or break health in a community, especially in low-income communities, but it’s also most often overlooked. Exploring how to strengthen health systems, gleaning best practices from other countries and replicating efforts– it’s why I like being at Columbia, in New York, because all of the knowledge and evidence from all these programs and projects comes together here.

As I prepare to graduate and pursue my career goals, I am cognizant of all the challenges that are part of the public health package. In class and outside of it, I’ve learned that it’s when everything falls apart that you can really start making progress. Luckily, I have a whole bunch of almost-fails to inspire me. (And Matt Damon.)

Over the next two weeks leading up to Commencement, the Mailman School website is featuring 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”; a Texas native intent on improving the odds for young women’s access to reproductive health in her home state; 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.

- See more at: https://www.mailman.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/kathy-colons-future-high-tech-health#sthash.Zg25Szgg.dpuf