The University of Massachusetts Amherst

William Lemnois ’18 graduated with a bachelor of science degree in Public Health Sciences with a focus in qualitative community-based research. After graduating from UMass Amherst, Lemnois joined the Peace Corps and served in Malawi for two years and then worked as a training and learning coordinator for Partners in Health's Community Tracing Collaborative during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, he is the vaccine equity and access coordinator for the organization Community Catalyst.

What made you interested in public health?

Initially, I entered UMass as a biology major on the pre-medical path. After an independent internship in a trading center hospital in Uganda, I quickly changed my major to public health. I have always had an interest in health and medicine. This internship was really the first time I was able to see how clinical health care and preventative, community-conscious care interact. It completely changed my view as to what skills and understandings a rounded health professional needs to be effective. I returned from this experience no longer viewing medicine and public health as two totally separate disciplines. As soon as I could, I switched my major to public health and began to build skills that I have used during and after my time at UMass.

Tell us a little bit about your public health journey so far.

Currently, I work as a vaccine equity and access coordinator for Community Catalyst. This program collaborates with 90 grantee organizations in 40 states on reducing vaccine hesitancy surrounding COVID-19 and Influenza in the United States. Most organizations are targeting marginalized and high-risk communities.

Prior to this position, I was on contract as a training and learning coordinator for Partners in Health’s Community Tracing Collaborative. There, I worked to train contact tracers and case investigators in groups as large as 600. I also would help to write and message out infection control protocols as information regarding COVID-19 changed. It was an intensive and fluid role but a master class in real-world epidemiology and public health communication.

Just after UMass, I joined the Peace Corps and served in Malawi for two years. I was a community health specialist in the Northern Region at a small bush clinic known as Mtwalo Health Center. Like many of my peers, I could spend hours talking about the highs and lows of this experience. I went through three months of cultural, linguistic, and technical training and was well-benefited by having previously worked in clinics in Uganda and Cambodia. Unfortunately, you can only prepare so much for being dropped in a new community, alone, in an extremely rural setting. It was a fantastic way to push myself both personally and professionally and provided opportunities to test myself that few jobs can provide. I worked primarily on sexual reproductive health rights, issues with transactional sex, gender-based violence, and HIV programming. I also was able to stand up TB clinics and worked heavily on malaria and sanitation issues in the area. I was able to work both in the clinic when needed and in the community. My fellow returned Peace Corps volunteers affectionately call these roles the hardest job we have ever loved.

What do you hope to do in the public health field in the future?

Currently, I am applying to medical school. I hope to continue to work internationally and would like to be able to bring my public health experience into the field of medicine to provide community and patient-centered care wherever I may end up. From what I have seen, a good clinician understands that one’s health does not stop at the threshold of the clinic or the borders of a nation, it bleeds into every aspect of the human experience. Public Health offers health professionals the necessary perspective to consider an individual’s lived experience and the environment they are returning to after initial care. This is vital when building rapport, working with larger communities, or simply designing a considerate treatment path.

What advice do you have for current students in the public health sciences major?

My absolute favorite aspect of the field of public health is that it is flexible. At the end of the day and at its core, public health is about communication. Though it may be in a format that focuses on health, skills in building rapport and crafting equitable communication are transferable to countless situations and fields. I would say do not be afraid to pivot and explore. It might take you off the path that you set early on in your academic career but that is okay. Take me, for example, I thought that I was going to go straight through UMass as a biology major, into medical school, and be done with residency before 30. Instead, I switched to public health my sophomore year, worked internationally, was evacuated from Malawi due to the pandemic, worked on the COVID-19 response in Massachusetts, then on vaccine access, and will be applying to matriculate to medical school in 2022. Though it did go a bit off the rails for me and I am not where I expected to be in 2021, I could not be happier! That time allowed me to focus on my professional goals and I had some life-changing experiences along the way. There is no race to a graduate degree. It's good to try different professional roles and really build an understanding of all the ways a background in public health can be useful. If you take the time to look, I promise you will be surprised.