Expressing myself through my public health work, with Medical Doctor, Entrepreneur, and Master of Public Health + Medical Law & Ethics Student Wubrest Bekele

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Wubrest Bekele, a physician, health media producer, medical law and public health student amongst other titles. Wubrest takes us through a journey of her multiple careers and discusses how all of her experiences and perspective have led her to the field of public health.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Wubrest’s start as a physician and the many detours she has taken to arrive at her MPH program in Yale. 
  • How volunteering in Wubrest’s early life played an important role in shaping her perspectives and goals
  • A brief overview of Ethiopia’s healthcare system and how it motivated Wubrest to work in community health
  • What lessons Wubrest learned from her various work experiences in different fields
  • How lessons can be learned from all experiences, whether good or bad
  • Why Wubrest chose to pursue her graduate degrees in the US 
  • What factors Wubrest took into consideration when applying for schools as an international studentIn this episode, Sujani sits down with Wubrest Bekele, a physician, health media producer, medical law and public health student amongst other titles. Wubrest takes us through a journey of her multiple careers and discusses how all of her experiences and perspective have led her to the field of public health.

Today’s Guest:

Wubrest Bekele is a Medical Doctor from Ethiopia currently enrolled in the MPH postgraduate studies at Yale School of Public Health and LL.M. Medical Law and Ethics at The University of Law. She is an Acumen Leadership Program Fellow, Board of Directors in philanthropy, and winner of the Ethiopian Medical Women Association’s ‘Celebrating Women in Medicine 2020 Award’. 

In her five years of work experience, Dr. Bekele led a newly built rural hospital to reach a commendable milestone of better patient care and efficient operations as a clinician and quality improvement head. She Co-founded the first health-focused media in Ethiopia, comprising 24- hour satellite TV, 24-hour radio, call center & online media, and created over 200 hours of educational TV & Radio content on COVID-19, reaching ~ 50 million population. Dr. Bekele worked in the national COVID-19 task force leading the Risk Communication and Community Engagement team at the Federal Ministry of Health. Currently, she is working as a summer intern at a healthcare VC firm and leading a research project on Childhood cancer in Ethiopia from the grant she won at Yale Collaborative Action Project.

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Episode Transcript

Wubrest 0:01
This teachers and this different experiences are the ones that opened my mind in a different way that wouldn’t otherwise be like that.

Sujani 0:12
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host, Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Sujani 0:28
Hi Wubrest. And thank you so much for joining me on the PH SPOT podcast. And welcome.

Wubrest 0:35
Thank you, Sujani, I’m so happy that you guys invited me I feel privileged honor, thank you so much for having me.

Sujani 0:42
It’s always a pleasure to, you know, get to meet different public health professionals who are doing just some amazing work in the world. So the honor is mine. Yeah, I’m excited to get into your story, because you’ve taken a number of different steps to get into where you are today, in terms of even moving into a different country as well. So maybe we can start right from the beginning. And you can tell us how you even discovered the field of public health and how you kind of became interested in wanting to pursue a career in the public health field?

Wubrest 1:25
Wow, that’s an interesting question. And also a very broad question, it would be, I’ll be touching a lot of topics and answering that. So originally, I am born and raised in Ethiopia, it is an East African country, I’m born in the capital, Addis Ababa, so I did all my education there to the point that I came to the US. And the reason why I got involved in the health field is, I think there are two most important things that I remember very vividly in my childhood that I have as an a big interest. One is just wanting to help people, I’ve always been engaged in voluntary work, volunteering in orphanages centers, local adoption agencies, different work. And I’ve always find it very important part of my life, when I get engaged in this kind of activity. So I always wanted to get engaged in a field that would help me, give myself to others, serve others and help others. And the other most important thing that I wanted starting from childhood was having an impact or having a purpose in my life, I’ve always said, you know, growing up in a country like Ethiopia, very low income country you see dispairs and a lot of struggles here and there. So I always wanted to have an impact to sort of be a responsible person to lift a certain burden for the country, for the people. So I think that has been the major driving factor for me to sort of land in the field of health, because obviously would allow you to help a lot of people in the process, obviously, at the point of despair, the point of pain, at the point where they kind of need somebody to help them. And also the healthcare aspect. And my country specifically, we have such a limited resource and a lot of demand in the field. So I find medicine to be a discipline or a field that would just allow me to help but at the same time have an impact. That’s why I ended up in the medical field. But I would confidently say it’s after I joined the medical school, did my basic courses and get into the clinical practice that I say, okay, this is a good choice. This is the right choice. And I made a confirmation that this was the right choice. So that’s how I got into the medical field. So I did medical school. And I finished that in 2016. Right after graduation, before starting my master’s program. I worked in different disciplines for five years, so many detours, those detours that I took, and the work that I’ve done in that five years allowed me to make my second decision to sort of start my master’s program and medical law and healthcare management.

Sujani 4:01
Wow, you said you, from childhood, enjoyed volunteering, and you were able to see that you wanted to have an impact in the people that you are working with. How young could you remember, you know, starting to volunteer? And do you kind of remember any specific stories that really made you think about, you know, going into medicine, for example, as a choice for your career?

Wubrest 4:27
I would say the most you know solid and meaningful experiences was in high school, even though there are different HIV AIDS club, different clubs that we have in elementary school. I didn’t consider that as a meaningful like really determining factor for my choice in joining and picking medicine but in high school, because I went to the same school from elementary to high school. I just maintained my engagement in the voluntary and different club activities, extra curricular activities in the school, but specifically in high school. I remember I came across this voluntary group called, Love and Care for his Little Ones. Basically, it’s a group of volunteers that they assigned themselves to go to different orphanage centers to just spend time with their kids during the weekend. So I saw this post about the Christmas celebration that they have just gathering up around 600 orphans from 18 Orphanage centers to sort of, you know, celebrate the holiday together. I saw that on social media, and I got to that event. And then I get connected with the organizers of that, and I registered to be a volunteer in that group. And specifically, I pick the center that is located in a very, I’m glad you asked this question, because this is the most influential part of my life that just changed my trajectory in life. So this center that I picked the organizer, her name is Ry-, she was just telling me of all the name of the organizations that orphanage center that they go to, and she specifically say this specific place, it’s very far away. And we don’t have so much volunteers who goes there, because for one, it’s not an orphanage center, sort of a center where the children just come in, eat their meal three times a day and have after school tutorials, but then they go to their houses. And on Saturday, they just come there, but Sundays, they’re at their places. So it’s very hard to sort of have an impact in that place. Because we don’t have their children most of the time there. And the community that they’re from, is a very unsafe, very difficult, it’s like a slum area where the CDs, almost all wastage would just be dumped. And also, it’s nearby to a hospital that way before that treated leprosy patients only, there was an outbreak in Ethiopia a couple of decades ago. And then only this center in this hospital in the capital was the only hospital that provided treatment for the whole leprosy patients in that country. So they used to come all the way from rural places to get treatment there. But it was very difficult to go back and forth to get treatment. So they sort of stayed in that place or in that slum area, just you know, living in a tent wherever and it’s sort of a community now very discriminated because of the disfiguring features and so many things that they have because of the illness. So basically, they depend on begging for living, and they just, you know, collect dumps to just sell from the CD stumpage in that area. So it’s like a very difficult environment to live in. And that center was just providing education service for students in that area, who ended up going to school if at some point their parents sent them to school. So the orphanage centers could let there be light. So the vision was just it’s only through education that we can bring light to that community. So I was very, very touched to hear that story. I went there. And then they connected me with that sort of program leap. And I asked for a house tours to just, you know, see the places of where they leave. So basically, it’s a house like a tent that they made out of. It’s not even a specific house. It’s just the slum area, I made a couple of parents, single parents for the most part, disfigured because of the leprosy because they didn’t get treatment at the right time. Most of them were blind depended on begging. But I was so inspired to see that the students and their children, so happy, bubbly, very good in their education. And it sort of changed not just my career perspective, but also me as a person to just see that most of the things that I take for granted the things that I have, but here to sort of have, so that I was like, okay, this is the place that I have to just be there, not just to give something to that community, but to learn from them. So I just made a commitment to that place. So I remember most of my high school, my Saturdays, I just go there spend my whole day starting from 9am to 5pm. I just go there spend time with the kids, I think around 36 to 40 kids at a time. We used to go there, I used to bring my students that we had a career fair to just introduce different disciplines for them, because they never had a role model. They didn’t even know what a doctor means. They didn’t know what a nurse mean. But in that process, I confirmed my personal decision, my personal career path that I have to always be on the serving end, and also that allowed me to sort of see the medical burden and my country. You didn’t even think that that place existed in that capital city where the African Union sits like, this is like a different version of the capital city. So I said okay, medicine is the way. So yeah, that’s a specific long way of explaining.

Sujani 9:52
Wow, thank you for sharing that and your commitment to wanting to spend Saturdays with these children and wanting to learn from them really shows who you are as a person and why you chose this path. So I feel very grateful to have met you, Wubrest. And thank you for sharing that story. When you were telling me about the center, I thought, you know, maybe you are going to tell me that you initially had thought about going into becoming an educator or a teacher, because that’s the environment that you were kind of surrounding yourself with. So yeah, I think you were trying to look at the place and trying to see how you could make an impact more at a larger system level perhaps. And I’m guessing that that’s what led you to make the next few decisions to take those steps that you did with your master’s in public health and Masters of Law. So very excited to get into those.

Wubrest 10:51
Funny story in that area, the reason why I didn’t end up going to the education path is I tried to give tutoring to the students there. But one thing that I’ve learned about myself in that process is, I don’t think I’m a very good teacher, because I don’t have patience, you know, at first, I’ll just explain the whole thing for the students, you know, in a very simple way. And then, you know, just like really investing my energy, I’ll just explain the whole thing and ask questions, whatever. And then, if they keep on asking and asking, at some point, I end up, you know, losing tolerance. I’m like, okay, this is that part for me. So that was not for me.

Sujani 11:28
There you go. Yeah, no, I guess yeah, it takes a bit of self reflection to write kind of understanding what you do, like, and then meeting what the world needs and what your interests are, and meeting in the middle to try to figure out where you could build your career. So there you go, we figured out.

Wubrest 11:50
Yeah.

Sujani 11:50
Okay, so you graduate from high school, and then you decide to pursue medicine, I am assuming that that’s the kind of direct path that you took.

Wubrest 12:00
Yeah. So in our country, it’s sort of the same as the UK system, you go to medical school, immediately, there’s no pre med, and then applying for medical school. So right after high school, it’s the same as the US matching system, you just pick the field that you want, and also the university that you want, and then the government would just match you. So I was privileged enough to be matched at one of the top medical school in the country. Also, it’s a teaching hospital, and the hospital is the last referral hospital for the whole country. So in the whole, six years and half of medical school, we get to see the most complicated cases, that’s referred from all over the country. So it was not just a medical school, but also was the reflection of the healthcare system, the reflection of our clinical practice, that reflection of our discipline, you know, for someone who just basically tried to focus and understand the lesson, it was not just the cases that complicated because of the disease process, but was because of the delay in getting treatment, it was because of, you know, arriving to the medical center, very delayed, because they don’t have awareness or problem in the referral system, or misdiagnosis. And, you know, some cancer cases been treating for months, like abdominal TB, whatever, but then it would end up being lymphoma. So you know, a lot of things were complicated. But also, it’s also a center where almost the top specialists of the country works there. So it was a good experience for me to learn about the country’s healthcare system as I set also to finish my medical practice, under the STEM professional the country have. But for me, as I said, because I’ve always been driven to impact I’m just, you know, trying to get a lesson or from all the experience that I get in one environment. So what stands out the most in my medical school experience with the health literacy of the people in my country, people just tell you that I was, you know, here and there trying to find solution, local remedies, going to religious places, wherever, before they come to the health center. There’s a huge gap in the health and literacy. So that’s when I started the first medical TV show when I was an intern before finishing medical school and most my last attachment in gynecology department, I had this small discussion with my friend there and we started a TV show in one of the national TV station, just a 30 minutes TV program to sort of just explain the basics of each medical conditions and what to do with it in a very simple language, the same way that we explain in a clinic to our patients to just have a national reach and the TV stations, linked with that we had a call center and right after the program, so the program just run on Sunday primetime 1pm to 1:30, but it has two reruns on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So right after the rerun and right after the program that Call center just like head off, people just call. But basically, most of the calls that we got was not directly related with the topic that we talk, for example, was just about diabetes or hypertension that we talked, but people just call and ask about abortion, people just call and ask about contraceptives, some of the so called taboo issues that we didn’t feel comfortable to talk about others about some of the private issues, and we sort of had an idea of the need, and that it’s like really an area that we should really work on. So that’s one of the detours that I took the first detour, still medical school, me being a very curious person, I always there to just, you know, try something. So that’s the first path that I took. And I understood about the demand in health education in the country. And after graduation, it’s a must for us to get deployed to one of the hospitals in the country to serve. Because we don’t pay for medical school in our country. When I say we don’t pay, it’s only for just the education expense, like a very limited amount that we pay for the hospital. But the rest, we just have to give it in a service for the country. So we have to get deployed in any place that the government would send us and serve in that area.

Sujani 16:18
Wow.

Wubrest 12:07
Yeah, so I got deployed in one of the rural places, it’s a primary hospital, basically, it was just upgraded from a health center to a primary hospital when we got deployed there. Me and one of my other female physician fresh graduates, I was 24. By then, if you know me, in person, I’m very petite, very child face. So it was very hard for me to sort of sought respect and acceptance in the people as a physician to sort of, you know, give treatment to the illness there used to, you know, male figure, older people to give them advices and something related with their health. So it was like a very challenging, interesting sort of way, but very challenging journey for us, because for us, we’re like fresh graduates excited, wanting to make a difference. And we also heard stories about people went to rural places and change the hospital, fundraised, you know, bought medical devices, wherever. So we went there, very excited. But the acceptance that we got is like, that’s the moment where I realized like, okay, there’s a thing called gender difference, there’s a thing called age, wherever for people to accept who you are, and to, you know, follow whatever that you say, there are stereotypes in the community. So was a quite interesting but also challenging experience in that hospital. Surprisingly, even though it’s a primary hospital, we only had a machine that text the complete blood count the other AMI machines that the hospital doesn’t have, it’s not even ready to be hospital because it just got upgraded from health centers to hospital. So every single case we see we’re not able to run lab to send them for X rays, MRI, whatever, so we have to just refer them to different hospital. So that was also a difficult thing for us to manage as a physician was like sitting there not doing anything. So my friend was assigned to be a medical director there and I was assigned to be quality improvement head. So that’s my first experience to the management aspect of health, I never knew that the decisions that you actually make in the offices would actually make a difference in the outcome of the patient. I always thought if you’re a good physician, if you know your science and you know, ask a good question in the history, you get a right and then you know, the outcome would be good or also if the patient has good health literacy and come very early, whatever, but also the management aspects of hospitals and major junk in the equation. So the hospital either catchment area of 300,000 people, the hospital serves that people that range for us to work with regional health bureaus. It’s like the state agencies in the US, we call it Regions in Ethiopia. So working with the Regional Health bureaus and working in the management, that’s another eye opening experience to the health and I realized that there is another aspect called public health, health care management, population health than just one on one clinical practice. So one year that made a huge difference for me to think about public health and eventually pursue after I finished my service in that hospital, I still kept in touch my connection with the TV station people and we’re having a discussion to sort of make it a big thing and to do it on a larger scale because of you know, the demand that we saw from the call center. So I was virtually engaging with the people while I was away. So when I came back, most of the work was done by my colleague, was not me. I would give most of the credit for her but I was part of it to sort of launch 24 hour TV station and radio station with a call center and online media fully dedicated to health media venture. We got investors, that was like a big kick, the first health focused health media venture that we started in 2018. So I immediately got there, and then worked as a program manager, one of the cofounders there. And then as a program manager, this time, I was not the one going front and camera, but I was just you know, working as a program focused on the health specific aspect. And we get to partner with Minister of Health Africa, CBC WHO Afro because basically, we had the airtime for TV, the airtime for radio. So most of the business transaction allowed us to create a link with so many people, we were able to work with the ministry to deliver health education and different local languages. So the impact was really huge. And the call center and the feedback that we got was amazing. And through that process, I was approached by the ministry to sort of work there to lead the Health Education program. Then I transitioned to the minister after working in one year at the Health venture, I joined the menstrual cycle, then I spent the last two years and half before becoming a full time student there at the Ministry working in different roles, basically engaging in health policy, high level government office work partnership with NGOs. That’s the area where I learned most about the medical legal issues in the country. As I explained so far, such a limited resource in the country, physicians try their best to make the best out of it. But in the process, it’s understandable is not a good language. But there are different malpractices and different issues that happens in the hospital. But also, it’s not just per se, the error of the physician is just the organization of the system, overall problem that would just add up to the system not specific to the physician, but the physicians were the one who used to be blamed. And then there are incidents where a policy just come in, get into the or and then take the physician had coped and take them to the prison. But a lot of patients and family members who also got hurt in the process, and we didn’t have a written legal legislation that basically defines what is held by the state. We don’t have as a nation, One Health Act, we don’t have a proclamation, no education program that talks about that. Just the criminal lawyers are the one, you know, taking this cases. And it was a very biased view of that. So from the ministry work, I learned so many things. One, is that I am not a policy person, policy is not my cup of tea. So I rolled out health policy, but I picked up the medical legal part. That’s how I applied first to the LLM program to do my law masters and medical law and ethics. And eventually, the hospital management aspect was still deep in my heart. So I started my second master’s in health care management at Yale.

Sujani 16:18
Wow.

Wubrest 16:18
I-

Sujani 23:16
I am mind blown, Wubrest. I don’t even know where to start with my questions. First of all, you’re-

Wubrest 23:20
So fair, right?

Sujani 23:21
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And I’m just so like, it’s fascinating, the various experiences you’ve had and just the way that you’ve been able to experience how health has been kind of brought to the people of your country. And it’s just very, very interesting how you were able to experience that, right? You know, starting from your work in high school with, Let There be Light, that organization and just kind of seeing how the children I guess were experiencing life and what you were able to take from that and then you talk about that the age of 24 having been handed over this hospital to essentially manage like what a task at the age of 24 not only like the clinical side of it, but the management of the hospital and even going to speak with I guess the regional boards and getting the funding and all of that I think you experienced something completely different there. And then even before that, the TV show and just being able to understand individuals needs through the call center I think I don’t know if you expected that. But for me I’m thinking like that’s an unexpected place to understand how people are receiving service in like the health care system through the- This call center and it just fascinating and yeah, I’m curious to hear your reflection on everything you’ve experienced in the way that you’re able to just one by one put the pieces together to understand the end of the day what it is that you want it to do with your career and and then all of that, I guess. Yeah, it’s a big question. But I’m just curious to hear your reflections on that.

Wubrest 25:05
Yeah, it’s a very good question. Honestly speaking, I would tell you that I’m still, you know, reflecting on the most of the things because I have been doing most of the things back on back back on back, I never had a time to sort of sit down and think about it. I’m a very driven person. Even growing up, as I said, very curious. And also, maybe my personality and the place that I grew up did not much in a way, because in my country, you’re sort of raised to just follow a certain path, even for education. If you’re like one of those students, good in academics. It’s either medicine, engineering or law, it’s just you know, there is no chances of you exploring out of the box, even in extracurricular activities, unless you’re privileged enough to go to good private schools, there is no like extracurricular activity that will just allow you to explore your potential here and there. Maybe it’s because of that, that I was trying to just express myself and get my interest is after I graduate medical school, I was like, I was free, I was able to make decisions by myself. So most of the decisions that I took was like a daring decisions. And I remember a funny story. When I started the Health TV program, there was no one, a medical doctor that has a TV show in my country by then I was the first one. So basically, the physicians, they will just go they’re invited as an interviewee.

Sujani 26:33
Right.

Wubrest 26:33
But never had their own show. And I remember, I was doing my internship attachment and gynecology department and one of the seniors in the final assessment, he said, I’m not going to allow her to pass this assessment and the excuse that he gave is we have not trained the journalists, we only train the medical doctor, I don’t know what she’s doing in a TV, wherever, I’m just trying to tell you the perspective and the views and how, you know, boxset sort of pads that people had, doing all of that. It’s not the same as we talk now and say, well, for me before, was like a daring decisions that I took. And I only made it because I have such a supportive family. And don’t just say, whatever makes you feel good. But now thinking about it, in a hindsight, I am so happy that I took all those detours, because at least in my country, I can confidently say, I know the 360 views of the health care system in my country, like the original, the Federal aspects of the whole thing. And I know, to make a decision now, just like we say, in public health, multidisciplinary field, you have to just get solutions from multiple angles to find the solution for health. It’s not just one specific solutions that you can get. So this experiences that I have here and there, I’m using them now, even in classrooms at Yale when people ask question I was able to answer from the different angles. And I’m starting to realize that this teacher is and this different experiences are the ones that opened my mind in a different way that wouldn’t otherwise be like that. So basically, I’m saying, now I’m realizing that the decisions are right. And also, I like this quote very much, “If the student is ready, the teacher is always there.” So even just in any pads in the conversation that the two of us would have, right now there’s a lesson in it. I’ve always been looking life in that way. There’s always a lesson even though it’s not a good decision, and maybe was not a good thing to do. At some point. There was a lesson in it on something not to repeat that lessons are not always a positive lesson. So as I tried to explicitly explain earlier, there is a lesson from it, like, understanding the health literacy aspect of my people from the hospital work about the health care management working in a hospital, I never thought I would be a person sitting in office to sort of fight with physicians working at the clinic, because I never understood that, like a manager would say, no, I have a limited budget, and I’m sorry, I’m going to prioritize this medicine over this. But sitting in the clinic, I never thought that would be something of an issue. I always complained. Like, why isn’t the hospital providing us this drug, whatever. But then I was on the other side of the chair, and I started to understand, okay, there’s this side of it. So every single part is a perspective that I came to appreciate as I go along.

Sujani 29:41
Yeah, I think when you- you mentioned just the classroom now that you’re pursuing your master’s, you must have rich conversations, you know, just having other practitioners around the table and I’m assuming Yale also attracts individuals from various countries and to be able to reflect together kind of allows you to take the next steps in your career, right?

Wubrest 30:05
Yes, yeah.

Sujani 30:07
Okay. So although I have a lot of questions about your TV show, and just the motivation to start something so creative, I think maybe I might save that for another interview with you and talk a little bit about your decision to pursue not a master’s in law or a master’s in public health. But really, your decision to look outside of Ethiopia to the US for, I guess, your grad studies and kind of what you’re hoping to get from this stage of your career. And then maybe you can tell us a little bit about just why Yale and maybe other schools that you may have considered and we can talk a little bit about that. But yeah, your decision to look outside of Ethiopia for grad studies and what you’re hoping to achieve?

Wubrest 30:57
That’s also a good question. Oh, great questions, both fields that I picked, I am doing medical law, and also healthcare management. For starters, we don’t have those programs in my country. That’s one of the major reasons and also, I know, the education system is good in a way. But if you just compare the demand that we have, and the sort of solution that we should provide for the country, I always wanted to just, you know, be a better person, for the people, I sort of see that like, as a major responsibility. So I always wanted to do an education in a good place, and not just providing the education, but in a very exceptional excellence place. So that I can, you know, equip myself in a better way to be of a better importance. Why specific the US, I think that’s sort of personal decision, all my siblings live in the US. Eventually, they move, almost all of them came for education, and ended up living here. And also, my dad works for the UN. So he gets deployment in different places. So basically, he’s in different countries. So my mom is either with my dad or with my siblings. So the last five years, I was basically living by myself, and I never liked that I was just, I was 100% focused on the career, even though that kept me busy. There’s a part that I was missing, you know, the family life.

Sujani 32:19
Yeah.

Wubrest 32:20
We grew up close with my siblings, I have two older sisters and three younger brothers, I’m in the middle. And we grew up very close. And at some point, I was just the one living by myself. And specifically, in the pandemic, it was very difficult for me, because my mom was also in the US. And then it was just, you know, with all that loneliness that we were feeling and work demand, all of those things, I decided that as much as you have to focus on your career, at the same time, you have to also care about your personal life. And to sort of bring that work life balance, I specifically applied to college in the US, I didn’t even apply to other countries. But the LLM program is something that I do online, the universities in London. So that’s an online program, it doesn’t require me to be there in person. But for the MPH program that I’m doing, I wanted to do it in person. The reason why I wanted to do in person is I needed the exposure. Also working at the ministry, I’ve seen a lot of interns coming from the US or from UK, from different universities to just intern with us and different directorates in the Ministry of Health. And I’ve seen the different skills, specifically take enabled skills, sort of working style that they have. And I started to realize that most of the things that we do in Ethiopia like labor work, even in a hospital, we don’t have electronic health record, it’s still paper based. I remember doing things by myself, like I always on YouTube, trying to teach myself how to do this, how to do this and that. And also, I realized, encountering with the people, with this students that come to intern with us how analytically that they think. And the education system in my country is sort of descriptive, you just memorize the content, they will ask you, what is this? And then you answer what you read. But then I’ve seen this people thinking analytically, and also trying to find the why. And they’re more focused on the way I think. And I’m like, I’ve never thought of my thinking and the equation. It’s just what I read. I never question what I read. So this part very intrigued me and I sort of said, I have to give myself that exposure. And I have to test you know, the kinds of capabilities that I have in this kind of environment. So I applied specifically to Ivy schools, and also schools that have high international student acceptance. And financial aid was also a major decision factor for me to pursue education. So I made a strategic application as I said, high international student acceptance and high financial aid offering universities, but also I was just daring, like I have a very good resume, at least for my country. So they were just there and apply to one of the ivy universities. So I was lucky enough to get full scholarship from Yale. So that was like one of the daring moves then rewarding. So that’s how I ended up here in the US.

Sujani 35:21
I mean, I think Yale is extremely lucky to have you. So yeah.

Wubrest 35:27
Thank you. I’m very privileged to be there. Because now I’m done with the first year, I made friends from almost all parts of the country, amazing, amazing, brilliant students. And, you know, the education system, as I said, I’m like, confirming it every single day, every question is, you read a study, and it’s all about what do you think you hate, you can criticize, it’s all about analytic work. And I’m doing a lot of unlearning, and a lot of learning. So it’s been quite a journey. But I want to also underline the other aspects of, you know, coming from a different place, specifically in a low income country in South Africa, to the US to the most competent school, the adjustment is not easy. adjustment is completely not easy. I was a person who is very outgoing, wide range of networks, because of the different work that I’ve done, very connected with my culture. And then I came here, and then was the cultural change by itself, the cultural shock is one. And also, as I said, different education system. So I was just taking my time to sort of adjust. But in the process, you see, you know, fast going, very competitive class environment, and that will just put you in a place where you started to self doubt. And then you have to just continuously tell it to yourself that it’s a transition, you have to give yourself a break, you have to just, you know, sort of go your own path. It’s not just a composition, even though you know, the grading system, whatever is curved, and you have to compete with a class environment. At the end of the day, what I tell myself is, what matters is understanding the content and then making the best out of it. And I was having this conversation with a lot of international students. And they also shared this transitioning difficulty, but not so many people talk about it, and then I’m a physician. So I’m very open to going to therapy, because I know the benefit of that. And I know the things that I can handle and things that I cannot handle and the importance of mental health, I realized from my classmates that they don’t want to do that, because no one wants to put that in their medical record, because it would just, you know, paint a negative thing on them. So I realized specifically in the spring semester, I was just talking with a lot of international students classmates, that we share this similar sentiment, that it’s not like easily seamless transition that you come from where you were doing things in excellence and come here, and then sort of have a bumpy road and start to self doubt. And you start to think that oh, I’m not good enough. But the environment is not that. I would say, you know, the faculty, everybody’s just very supportive. But this specific part of it, they’ll just say it’s imposter, it’s imposter. But it was just a shallow conversation of saying, just labeling it as an imposter. But it’s just that giving you a space to sort of transition in your own way. And then eventually we all adopt, and at some point, we even excel, even beyond our expectation, but that transition and the mental health tool was never easy, I think was not easy for me. I think I heard similar from others. I don’t know, maybe you can ask others about-

Sujani 38:54
Yes, you know, just grad school is an adjustment to begin with. And then you add on top of that, having to come and learn a new culture, be away from what you’re used to, which is the country that you grew up with, your family, your friends and everything else that you’re comfortable with, and then throw that into the mix. I can’t imagine what that adjustment looks like. And yeah, no, thank you for sharing that. Because we do have a lot of international students going to either the States or Canada for grad school. And we do get a lot of questions from them starting from, you know, the the application process, how do I choose a school and then once you do decide on the school, the application that you put forward, and then once you do get get admitted, what does that transition look like? So I don’t know if there’s anything else you would add to that even you know, starting as early as discovering the school that you’d like to do your master’s in public health and then kind of deciding where to go and then actually making the decision and then going through the programs so curious to hear if you have anything else you could share?

Wubrest 40:03
That’s a very important question. And I think, mainly, it depends on the place where you’re applying from, if it’s a place like where I grew up, there’s no college prep, we had no idea about, you know, college here, I learned most of the things because of my siblings, because they came here, right after high school. So I got most of the information. But similarly, as you told me earlier, I get questions from so many people on LinkedIn, asking me about the information, I think the best place to start is, knowing what you want to learn, because there are so many disciplines out there, and at some point, you just get lost in this searching process. So starting from knowing what you want to learn, then you would make specific research on that specific course. And also, I think defining the location could be determined by so many factors. If you have family member in UK or Canada, you might end up choosing Canada over the US. But if you at least know the whereabouts of their location where you want to go, then you can just narrow their search into universities there. And if you’re a kind of person who wants to get financial aid, it depends on the universities who would just provide financial aid, there are universities that accepted me not an Ivy League schools, not that, you know, top in their ranking of the public health school, but then even provide financial aid, but then here an ivy would for financial aid. So there are different nuances there. But I think just selecting the things that you want, the field, the country, and also financial aid wise, what you want to do. And the fourth part of it is getting all the proper documentation ready for me to have to do the World Education Service approval evaluation of my transcript, I have to send my transcript to WES. And then they had to approve that. So that took like about a good month or a month and half and taking the English competency test either alts or TOEFL, and then the GRE, and then writing the personal statement and statement of purpose, getting your recommendation letters. So all this paper works, people just focus on finding the university and applying. But it would be easier if you just prepare all the documents ahead of time, because at the end of the day, most of the schools would require the same documents. So maybe making sure that you do the university search simultaneously with preparing this documents because that could take time I applied through Sophos. So if they are applying in the US, it’s easier to just upload all your documents on Sophos and then send it to the selected universities. So properly planning the timing of this papers, the recommendation letter, although recommenders, we didn’t give the recommendation right away after you ask them. So giving adequate amount of the time for them to just write or if they want the draft ahead of time. And then they’d edited just to plan in that line as well. Writing a good statement of purpose. For me, one thing that I understood after I came here is people would just care more on how you tell your story and what you learned from your story. So it’s not all about I worked here, this happened, this happened. It’s not just a descriptive part of your experience. But the process of it and the way you tell your stories. And what you want to make out of it is what makes you stand along the most. So taking your time to just craft a very good statement of purpose and personal statement and, you know, finalizing all the paperwork can go simultaneously with selecting the university’s specific location and everything.

Sujani 43:43
Yeah, no, thanks for that. I think that’s great advice for any of our listeners who are kind of in that exploration phase, and just getting prepared, right, before you have to start sending those in to the universities. If you have all of that already done, then I think the process is a lot more smoother. So Wubrest you know, looking back at your five plus year journey so far, I’m curious to know, is there any point that you would have thought, you know, maybe I could have done something differently? Or it’s a path that you’ve taken something that you think, you know, it was the right path? It’s exactly how I needed to get to where I am today?

Wubrest 44:23
Very good question. I’m going to be very personal on that.

Sujani 44:26
Yeah.

Wubrest 44:27
Let me start from the thing that I would do differently. So I was very curious, very passionate to do things. I was just giving all my energy, but my perspective was 100% focused on impact doing things for the people, even going to a job. I never asked about salary, let alone negotiating those things. I was just very naive and just, you know, focused on work, and then delivering all the tasks. So my journey and the TV station would something that I would have run differently because it’s completely a business environment like 100%, for profit, it was me and my neurologist, friend with equity. And we’re just we don’t have financial investment in it. But we’re the one with the idea. So we had some sort of share in that. And then there are three investors who came in with financial investment. So we’re five of us in the board. And I was the only one by then I was 25. And the others are like in their 60s, people, business people. And they heard that it’s going to be the first TV radio call center, no health station before. And they saw that in the launching, if European Medical Association was there, two different ministers was there. And they’re launching Minister of Health who for so they kind of saw the potential. So basically, they were after the revenue. Me, I was just, I never no experience in the business aspect, I was just there to just deliver health education. For me, I never understood the difference of you know, having a TV station 24 hours talking about health, talking about how to wash your hands. So I think about this and that. But at some point, you know, education on its own is boring, you have to just mix this with entertainment. So there has to be a segment that would just catch other audiences, and then in a way that you put your health education in the middle of the entertainment wherever those aspects of it. So I remember having a lot of challenging conversation with the board members in our board meetings. And I never understood the concept of doing things just for the business purpose, something that would bring in revenue. And I’ll say no, that would compromise our reputation, this and that. So in the process, there are a lot of programs that could potentially be done. But because I was in charge of the program, I was the program manager, you know, I was just saying, no, we’re not going to do this. And that. And I still have the scripts of those program, I don’t know when I’m going to do it. But now thinking about it, you know, you- you still need financial capital, you still need finances to make things move forward, if you want your impact to, you know, be broad. And if you want to scale up, you definitely need revenue. It’s sort of a mentality that I had growing up in Ethiopia where, you know, because most of the people who help people are just giving it for free, and those who just charge people just consider it as business people, selfish people. It’s just this leveling, so I was just fit into that stereotype. And then I think I would have done more great things. If I had that mentality by then. But then, you know, it’s a learning experience. I learned a lot from that.

Sujani 47:42
It is. And you know, I’m sure I’m gonna ask you to come back on another episode to just talk specifically about your experience building that TV show and media company. And we can probably get into more of a discussion then. But yeah, it’s all about going through it and experiencing and it’s not something that you’re going to learn the first time around, right? So that the second time and future I guess, initiatives and ventures that you do start you’ll have these lessons to build off of.

Wubrest 48:13
Yeah, correct. Correct.

Sujani 48:16
Well, thanks so much, Wubrest, I think this has been such a fascinating conversation for me, I learned so much. Of course, I’m always feeling inspired after I speak with my guests. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is for me after these calls. I’m so enthusiastic about continuing the work I do with PH SPOT. So I just want to say thank you for joining me and for sharing your story with our listeners.

Wubrest 48:40
Yeah, I really enjoyed the conversation as throughout. Thank you so much for having me.

Sujani 48:44
Hey, so I hope you enjoy that episode. And if you want to get the links and information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to pHspot.org/podcast. And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I wanted to let you know about the career program that we run here at PH SPOT. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about building your dream public health career, then we can help you through this program. It’s an intensive hands on training program for early public health professionals. And this includes recent graduates and students. And you can now join the waitlist at pHspot.org/program. And you’ll be notified when the next cohort opens up. And until next time, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight, and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.

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About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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