Global Health Alumna Julia Polk (WCAS 2007) and the Privilege of Caring for Others

Julia Polk (WCAS ’07)
Major: Anthropology
Minor: Global Health Studies

For Julia Polk, it is as much about the little things as it is the big.

Her passion for global health has truly been global—traveling from places like Brazil to South Africa and Israel—but her focus particular. Polk just couldn’t help herself from getting carried away by the stories of her patients.

“I couldn’t only do research and look at the big picture,” Polk said.

Her studies in anthropology and global health at Northwestern gave Polk a holistic lens with which to view her patients within their social and cultural contexts, she said. In fact, she says Northwestern, and the opportunities to study abroad, started her on her path into global health.

She spent her summers studying global health around the globe, starting after her freshman year and continuing throughout her time at Northwestern. Her first program abroad was through the Office of International Program Development’s Public Health in Mexico program, which she says opened doors for her. Living on her own in a foreign country, shadowing doctors in a clinical setting and conducting research convinced her that she could pursue public health as a career.

Polk says these experiences allowed her to grow and realize her own potential, and she learned what her strengths and weaknesses were in those settings.

“Being the lone foreigner who doesn’t understand how things work, and who cannot speak the language, teaches you many things and gives you tremendous respect for immigrants in your own country,” Polk said.

After graduating from Northwestern, Polk, a native Brazilian, decided to return home to work as a research intern at the National School of Public Health. Although she knew that she wanted to work toward health equality, especially for women in the developing world, it took time out in the working world to figure out how she wanted to do it.

Polk applied and was accepted to the Medical School for International Health  in Beer Sheva, Israel, which is affiliated with Columbia University Medical Center. The Medical School for International Health fit perfectly with her goals of global health and helping underserved populations, with a global health perspective integrated into the curriculum. The school’s hospital serves a largely Arabic-speaking Bedouin population, an underserved minority within Israel; additionally, the school allowed her to observe and assist at hospitals in India and Ethiopia. However, being a doctor also connects her to a larger community, she said.

“What I love about being a doctor is that you inherently have colleagues all around the world that you can connect with, and that together you can work towards a common goal, like improving the health of women globally,” Polk said.

Currently in the last year of Ob/Gyn residency at Drexel University’s Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, which serves the inner-city population, Polk spends her days operating and seeing patients, as well as supervising medical students and residents. She says she feels lucky to be working somewhere that values the perspectives of its practitioners and the varying circumstances in which they work, facing different challenges and serving different communities. As she prepares to finish her residency, Polk says she hopes to combine global health—research, teaching, policy and outreach development—with clinical medicine in her future job.

However, Polk notes that medical school is only one path into global health, a path she chose because she felt the skills she would learn would increase her ability to make a difference. Rather than any specific job, Polk says experiences and travel are key to building the skills needed to succeed in the global health community.

“One must understand first-hand how culture affects health and there is no better way to do that than spending quality time with members of different cultures with different health concerns, barriers or inequities,” Polk said.

She also emphasized the importance of language learning and immersive experiences.

“Do home-stays, apply for an undergraduate research grant and travel on your own,” she said. “These are the experiences that truly afforded me the confidence and skills to fully pursue a career in global health.”

Polk credits the education and preparation she received at Northwestern, along with opportunities to research and study abroad, for her continued passion and success in global health. Without the connections she made and the encouragement she received from the global health department and through undergraduate research grants, Polk says she wouldn’t be where she is today.

Polk, who serves as a mentor in the Public Health Mentorship Program, also offered advice to students hoping to join the global health community, reminding them to treasure their role helping others despite challenges they will face.

“Remain strong and remember that the highest compliment one can receive is the privilege of being allowed to care for someone else,” she said. “When you understand this, you will be able to keep the patient or people’s best interests in mind and allow their goals and needs—not your own—to guide your work.”

Julia in a rural town in central India during her 4th year elective.

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