“Be Nice to the Intern” and Other Advice — Global Health Alumni Interview with Sara Melillo (Medill 2004)

Sara Melillo (Medill ‘04)
Majors: Journalism, History
Minor: African Studies

What did you do after graduation and where are you now? Looking back, how do you see your path from NU to your current job?

Immediately after graduation, I started graduate school at the Tulane School of Public Health working on my Master’s in Public Health with a concentration in International Health. I did some courses in Kenya, then I did a practicum at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Global HIV/AIDS Program in Atlanta.

Following that, I moved back to Chicago, wanting to be closer to my friends. I became a journalism program officer at the McCormick (Tribune) Foundation. You know, the guys’ whose name is on the shiny Medill building. I worked there almost four years making grants to journalism non-profits to advance freedom of expression, youth media, reporting quality, etc. It was actually very useful for my career in global health now, learning the donor side of evaluating proposals, program management and monitoring and evaluation.

Wanting to get back into global health (and conceivably spend a third of my life on an airplane), I took a job as an HIV/AIDS program officer at the Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C. There, I helped manage a five-country East Africa HIV/AIDS prevention program that worked with long-distance truck drivers and commercial sex workers along a high HIV transmission corridor. Then, I moved to a faith-based non-profit, Catholic Medical Mission Board, where I worked in several roles for almost four years: Technical Specialist/Grant Writer, Deputy Director of Grants Acquisition and Management, and Director of Strategic Information/Programs. Wanting to round out my experience, I joined a for-profit contractor, Creative Associates International in Washington, where I helped start a global health practice. During the past year, I’ve been independently consulting on global health and development tackling a variety of tasks for a number of clients.

Despite being a driven, Type A NU person, I’d say my path was pretty fortuitous. I am always on the lookout for interesting opportunities and am not afraid to pursue them. I like multitasking and variety. It’s worked out pretty well.

What projects are you currently working on? What’s an average day like for you?

I’ve been an independent global health consultant for the past year and all I can say so far is that there is no average day. I’m currently juggling five clients, all of which are non-profits working in international health or development. Right now, for example, I’m designing and writing a proposal for orphans and vulnerable children impacted by HIV/AIDS in Tanzania; planning an upcoming client trip to Cambodia to do research for an upcoming malaria control program; helping design a cross-organizational monitoring and evaluation framework for a family planning/reproductive health agency; and writing some case studies on a primary healthcare program in the Congo. On a typical day, I’m juggling client emails and usually doing one in-depth assignment or piece of work supporting the batch of projects above.

Being on my own is great. I usually work from home two to three days a week, and then work out of client offices in DC. Sometimes I do early Skype calls with Africa. I usually do a client trip every few months. This past year I’ve been to Haiti, Zimbabwe and Tanzania for work.

How did your global health studies at NU influence your career choice and even life in general?

I’m one of the ‘old timers’ — there was no global health minor during my time at NU. However, there were many fascinating options across departments. I took African history classes and medical anthropology, for example. I suspect NU still captures a lot of these courses in the global health track.

My Teaching Newspaper internship in South Africa (now the Journalism Residence) in Medill definitely led me down the path to global health. I was reporting in some townships outside of Johannesburg on HIV/AIDS in 2003. Back then, there were no anti-retroviral drugs, so people were passing away in droves. Seeing some of the volunteer-driven home-based care programs really touched me. I knew I wanted to do more to help with global health, and wasn’t convinced that for me journalism would allow me to be directly involved. My NU journalism South Africa buddies from that time were equally impacted — two are currently based in Africa as reporters and have been for some time, another works on international political risk.

Having a huge fascination with Richard Preston’s book “The Hot Zone” also helped propel me into global health.

Where did you study abroad and how has it influenced you?

As I noted above, I did my Journalism Residency in South Africa, specifically Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was really my turning point in wanting to tackle global health and have an international-oriented career. I’ve always loved traveling and meeting new people, so my experiences really reinforced that. After my JR, I also interned with Mothers2Mothers, a non-profit that worked on preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Cape Town’s informal settlements. I was one of the first four or five people there — now it’s grown into a booming multi-country non-profit doing wonderful work across the continent. Watching grassroots public health programming in action was both inspiring as well as eye-opening. Fundraising will always be part of your life when you work in global health.

Do you have any advice or suggestions for current global health students on how to get involved or how to choose their career path in global health? What about advice for students looking for work following graduation?

Internships are always helpful, especially when they’re paid. If you need to, get side-jobs throughout the year or during the summer to subsidize the unpaid experiences. When you do get an internship, come in first, leave last and always be asking what you can do to help. Don’t be afraid to use alumni, friends of your parents, or whomever you can connect with for coffee to learn from them and how they got into the field. These conversations sometimes lead to connections down the road.

Read as much as you can to be knowledgeable on global health. It will help you in all of your jobs, meetings and interviews. I recommend Kaiser Foundation’s daily global health policy report. It’s free and aggregates all the leading global health tidbits you need to know.

Make a good LinkedIn profile and update it. I’m finding more and more global health people, at least in D.C., use it for recruitment and networking.

Finally, take some chances when you’re young and go abroad if you are inclined. It only gets harder when you’re older and you’ll be less excited about staying in a six-bunk hostel.

What’s one life lesson that you have learned since you started working?

How about three?

  1. Be nice to the intern — someday they will hire you. Seriously, this happens.

  2. Make yourself valuable as a “maker,” not just a manager. You’ll find, especially as you ascend, that people don’t actually produce anything — they just share their ideas and order people around. Those are good and useful skills, but if you want to be really in demand — make something too. For me that’s writing, but it can be a number of things. If you learn SAS or SPSS and can do data analysis really well, make great power point presentations, etc.

  3. Oh, and get an aisle seat on long transatlantic flights or you will really regret it when you are stuck next to a snoring person on a 17 hour flight who won’t wake up.

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