The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Hellen Muma ’23 is working toward her bachelor of science degree in Public Health Sciences on the pre-physician assistant track and a minor in Kiswahili. She is a Boren Scholarship recipient, which will allow her to travel to Tanzania to study Swahili.

What made you interested in public health?

I originally thought coming into UMass as a freshman that I wanted to do something in the medical field. However, I did not want to major in biology. I wanted to study something that was holistic, that captured every aspect of a person and how different factors can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health. If I decided to be a doctor, I wanted to get to the root of the problem instead of treating it at the surface and maintaining it.

What really sparked my love for public health was when I took a trip back to my home country of Kenya. It was beautiful, but beautiful is an understatement. However, I realized in the health sector, the traditions and education we practice here are uncommon or unknown in some areas. I saw firsthand how the medical system worked in the villages, and if someone had the answer, you had to go through many other people who did not.

When I came home and began the second semester of my sophomore year, I took PH200: Introduction to Public Health with Professor Gloria DiFulvio and Professor Laura Vandenberg. They further encouraged my love for public health. They put the pieces together for me, and I realized that some of the health issues around the world are not our fault, but the way we treat our environment, our community, how our governments treat us, and our ability to access good quality health care, and our lack of knowledge and awareness are our responsibility.

After this class, a fire sparked in my heart, and I began thinking about my future career and how I could address and resolve these issues to places where they may be hard to reach.

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

I began my public health journey as a junior in high school. I was an intern at a farm organization in my local community that provided land access, and marketing opportunities to immigrant and refugee farmers. This experience really opened my eyes to food and agriculture. I learned so much about food accessibility, land rights, organic food practices, land, and food disparities, and attended my first farmers market. After two years as an intern, I held a full-time position as an outreach specialist. Here, I supported farmers in accessing farmers markets all over the state along with assisting in becoming HIP/SNAP accessible where people, no matter their financial status, could have access to fresh vegetables. This experience was my first exposure to a section of public health.

Recently, I received the Boren Scholarship from the Boren National Security Education Program, which provides undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, and institutional grants to students to understand foreign cultures, strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness, and enhance international cooperation and security. This is an opportunity for me to study my home language of Swahili in Tanzania, but it will also be a chance to further educate myself on the public health of Tanzania and its surrounding countries, which is my focus in my future career plans.

Public health is so diverse, and I am still discovering the many ways I can reach, teach, and aid others with this major. Currently, I am on the path to PA school. Before I get there, I would love to get my master's in public health, and potentially work for the Global Health Protection and Security department of the CDC. My ultimate goal is to give back to my community. It is my job as a future public health advocate and scientist that I not only help the people in my community, but people all over the world in different communities. I would like to go back to Kenya and advocate for medical awareness.

What advice do you have for current students in the Public Health Sciences major?

You are bound to find your passion in public health. Once you have found something you are interested in, dive deeper into it. I heard somewhere that a public health degree is one of the few degrees where you can have such a large impact on people’s health.