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Rebecca Duerst

UIC SPH alum blog entry – Rebecca Duerst, PhD, MAT, MPH (2012)

If I have any words of advice, I think they’d be to stay open to taking a zig-zagged path and keep in touch with the people you meet along the way…

I attended UIC SPH from 2010-2012 as a MPH student in Community Health Sciences with a Global Health concentration. While there, I took advantage of any and all global health opportunities I could – studying diphtheria in India (under Dr. Mark Dworkin with support of the Passaro Award), HIV and AIDS in Kenya (with Dr. Robert Bailey for my practicum experience), and disaster risk reduction in Haiti and health-seeking behaviors in Uganda (with Dr. Janet Lin). Clearly, I also had a strong interest in epidemiology; at the time, I thought I’d be focusing my career on infectious disease.

At the same time, I was immersed in community assessment, in both coursework and as a TA with Dr. Jeni Hebert-Beirne. After beginning my career, I realized how lucky I was to have been shaped by her courses. From reading Paulo Freire, to learning about and practicing participatory approaches with (not for) communities, to examining social and structural determinants of health and confronting power and privilege – to this day I draw from that formation.

Stepping back further into my career, I began in laboratory research with the intent of developing new vaccines, but soon realized, feeling stuck in a lab, that it wasn’t for me. I had enjoyed teaching undergraduate courses, so decided to give teaching a try – but after finishing that degree, realized that I’m not so good at managing high school students doing experiments involving flames and hazardous chemicals. After spending two years in Namibia with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a profoundly formative experience, I returned to school for a MPH – and finally, found a fit.

In 2012, a week after completing my practicum in Kenya, I began a new position with the ELCA as Program Director for Global Health. In the years in between, I had kept in touch with ELCA colleagues, and it was through those connections that I found my way back.

Then in 2016, I accepted a new position as Director for Diakonia, the team that leads ELCA’s engagement in relief and development work internationally (including global health). Diakonia is a term that encompasses the call to serve the poor and oppressed – I interpret it as the call to overturn systems that create and perpetuate poverty and oppression. While now a bit removed from health itself, I am closer to focusing on root causes of injustice that put some people more at risk of poor health than others. This role has broadened possibilities for setting the direction for our engagement in this work. It has brought me into communities around the world, provided an opportunity to walk alongside people who have been marginalized by the dominant culture as they claim their rightful place at the table, and to listen and learn from their lived experience so that those in the U.S. might be transformed as well.

Participating in this work is a challenge and an honor. While it took time to figure out which direction I was headed, the relationships I made along the way led me well indeed. 

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