Takhona Hlatshwako, HPM Senior & Rhodes Scholar
We at Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Takhona Hlatshwako about her BSPH program, her plans as a Rhodes Scholar, her work at the intersection of health equity and infectious diseases, and why she chose Gillings.
What was your background before enrolling in the BSPH program at Gillings?
I enrolled at UNC in 2018 as a first-year undergraduate student and prospective HPM student. Before that, I completed two years at an international school in Armenia called United World College (UWC), where I studied with students from all over the world. Other than that, I did all my schooling in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), where I was born and raised. I’ve been fortunate to have varied lived experiences that inform my outlook on life. Every person I’ve met and place I’ve lived has become a part of my “background” and they are inextricable from who I am today.
Can you tell us about your plans as a Rhodes Scholar?
My goal is to study global health with a focus on low-and-middle income countries. As a person from a low-income country, I have seen at close-range the challenges faced by our health systems. At the University of Oxford, I hope to pursue an MSc in International Health and Tropical Medicine, which is a one-year master’s program that examines health challenges in resource-limited contexts. In my second year as a Rhodes Scholar, I hope to get a second master’s degree in Modelling for Global Health. I’ve become really interested in investigating resource allocation for health and applying evidence-based decision-making, and these two programs will allow me to study these fields further. Ultimately, I hope to advance the field of equity-informed resource allocation and global health equity.
Can you tell us about your work at the intersection of health equity and infectious diseases?
I’m currently serving as the co-chair of the Minority Health Conference at Gillings, whose overarching goal is to advance health equity through dialogue and community-building. I’m honored to be a part of a great team helping to put together the 43rd Conference early next Spring, where we hope to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic and the myriad of challenges it has come with, especially for communities for color.
I also did an Internship at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, where I took part in a 10-week program focused on health equity. That really solidified my interest in health policy research with an equity focus. The internship also introduced me to decision sciences, which I have continued to explore in my honors thesis program at Gillings.
I have also worked on HIV-related projects to improve the uptake of HIV services in various communities. My work so far has utilized crowdsourcing techniques to solicit community wisdom in health research. I’m a big believer in partnering with the community to help solve health problems, and crowdsourcing is a great way to do that.
What does “global health” mean to you?
To me, global health is a global right to wellbeing. It means being able to live a flourishing life, no matter who you are, or where you were born. For me, it means being able to go home and get the same quality of care I can get here. Overall, it’s about access and equity. It’s about your health and my health and our health –without the gatekeeping.
What drew you to the Gillings School of Global Public Health?
I really wanted to be surrounded by the best minds that were doing the kind of work I hoped to do in the future. As an international student, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about American universities, but I quickly became aware of Gillings in my searches for a public health program. It was hard not to be drawn to the level of research expertise at the school and the promise of “global is local.” Staying true to my aspirations of a global education, I applied and the Morehead-Cain Foundation made it possible for me to attend.
What is your dream job?
It’s difficult to answer that right now because there are so many things that I’m frustrated by, like unaffordable healthcare, health disparities, increasing prevalence of disease, persistent health system challenges, to mention a few. My “dream job” is one that helps to remove these frustrations, especially those affecting the most disadvantaged in our society.
What was the first book you read that really stuck with you?
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It “found me” at an age when I was really into made-up worlds. The book is about a girl who has terminal cancer. When we first meet her, it seems like she has made peace with the fact that she is going to die, but then a “plot twist” in her story makes her want to live. At the time when I read it—filled with my own questions of what it meant to be alive—it felt like an answer to my question. Now I just remember it as a very sad story. I would hope one finds the thing that makes life bright and beautiful a lot sooner.