Willa Serling '16

Tackling Global Health Issues

This year Willa Serling ’16 was named an Erasmus Mundus Scholar, a highly prestigious scholarship that will allow her to earn a dual master’s degree through the EuroPubHealth Programme. The first year she will study at the University of Sheffield, England, to obtain a master’s in Public Health; the second year, she’ll be at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, to obtain a master’s in Leadership in European Public Health.

“My dream job is to work at the World Health Organization,” says Willa, pausing her flight preparations to England long enough to chat on the phone. “I’m especially interested in socio-cultural epidemiology, which combines anthropology and public health: factors that determine prevention and prevalence of epidemics – all of which can cause an epidemic to surge.”

This very kind of surge – the COVID-19 pandemic – means Willa will have to quarantine for 14 days the minute she reaches England. She’ll stay in an off-campus house with three other post-grad students from England and be expected to follow extremely strict rules. 

“We can’t leave to get groceries or go out on walks,” confirms Willa. “We’ll be fined £3000 if they check our house and we aren’t there.” 

Training for a Global Pandemic World

Willa was awarded the Erasmus Mundus Excellence Scholarship based on both academic performance and extra-curricular work. While pursuing a degree in anthropology from Colorado College with minors in global health and human biology and kinesiology, Willa has proactively participated in multiple internships with organizations working around the globe. 

The summer before her sophomore year, she worked at a locally founded, non-governmental program in Kenya called the Western Organization for People Living with HIV/AIDS (WOPLAH). The organization helps fund and run six social support programs that work to destigmatize HIV in the community. 

“We surveyed their services to identify what was working and what could be improved,” says Willa, “and also helped them write and apply for grants.” 

In her junior year of college, Willa participated in a study-abroad program through the School of International Training (SIT), which engages students in the most critical global issues of the day. Willa and her fellow SIT participants learned about public health in Viet Nam, South Africa, and Argentina.

“We spent six weeks in each country and compared health programs in all three,” recounts Willa, “and conducted a research project in all three countries on how social determinants and stigma affect access to prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis.”

Healthcare as a Right

This past summer Willa spent in New York City, working for HealthRight International, an organization that believes health is a human right and leverages global resources to address local health challenges and create sustainable solutions. As a business development intern, Willa organized grants and fundraising management software for programs in the U.S., Ukraine, Kenya, and Uganda. 

Willa also actively engaged in a university-based chapter of GlobeMed, an organization that that brings students together to engage in global health in a way that makes a lasting impact. She was co-president of the club her senior year.

Every month, Willa and her fellow GlobeMed chapter members took a different public health theme such as the intersections between environment and health. They then researched the theme (one of which was COVID), presented to the club, and brought in relevant speakers.

Honing Skills for Public Health

Willa attributes her comfortability with multiple majors and intersections of disciplines to her seven years at The Northwest School.
“Every class integrated the other disciplines and taught us how to see the bigger picture,” recalls Willa, who also credits the school for her pro-active approach to her college education. “When I got to college it became all the more apparent what I had learned at Northwest – how teachers were so open and willing to communicate with students. This translated into being much more confident in approaching my college professors and reaching out to get my internships.” 

Additionally, knowing how to develop a well-framed and thought-out question has been invaluable as a scientist, according to Willa – a skill she learned from Renee Fredrickson’s Chemistry class and Mark Terry’s Primate Biology class. “Mark would correct a student’s question not by giving the answer, but having the student clarify what they know from the lab or lesson, and then saying, ‘Okay, reframe that question and re-ask it.’” 

A final perk that Willa has been taking with her as she navigates the globe is her skill at playing ultimate, which she perfected at Northwest. 

“I played in college, and then during my SIT study abroad, I joined a team in Cape Town, South Africa, and last summer, I joined the ultimate team during my internship in NYC,” says Willa, adding that she plans to join in Sheffield, England, as well. “It’s a global sport and a great way to connect.”