Ivonne Headley speaks with The Pivot.

Ivonne Headley creates healthful feeding and nutrition strategies for Spanish-speaking communities.


Number 1

What’s your role in public health?

I’m currently a second-year master’s student in the Department of Nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Within my program, I’m receiving training to be a registered dietitian (RD), too. I’ve also joined the Carolina Breastfeeding Institute through the Mary Rose Tully Training Initiative at UNC, which is an accredited lactation consultant training program. With all this academic and professional experience on the way, I’m very much looking forward to fall semester!

I came to the Gillings School five months after returning to the United States from my Peace Corps service abroad in Manabí, Ecuador. As a community health volunteer, I worked at a rural health center funded by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Public Health. My focus was co-facilitating a series of family health clubs to promote physical activity. Additionally, I led health promotion presentations to discuss topics ranging from sexual and reproductive health to hygiene and nutrition for individuals in my community.

After only one year at UNC, I can honestly say that my love for public health and my academic horizons have broadened immensely. I now have my eyes set on obtaining a doctoral degree in population health sciences. I want to combine my Peace Corps service experience with my passion for breastfeeding and nutrition into a dissertation that catapults to a lifelong career of creating and evaluating breastfeeding interventions. I hope to conduct such research specifically among Spanish-speaking populations, both domestically and abroad.


Number 2

Can you describe your focus area in one sentence?

I work on community approaches to safely increasing exclusive breastfeeding practices in Latin America.


Number 3

What brought you to public health?

I studied dietetics, nutrition and food sciences as an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont. Since I’ve always loved connecting with people, one of my undergraduate advisers pointed me in the direction of pursuing a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. After all, as I like to say, “public health is people’s health.” (Feel free to quote me on that in future conversations!) An MPH made too much sense to not pursue.

Ivonne Headley serves up Spanish-inspired shrimp and rice as part of a monthly cultural heritage dish.

Ivonne Headley serves up Spanish-inspired shrimp and rice as part of a monthly cultural heritage dish.

This summer, I led a community outreach project with the Department of Aging in Whiteville, North Carolina. First, I conducted a nutrition education session with a handout I created on protein and physical activity. We then closed our time with about 20 minutes of physical activity to the beat of some music, incorporating a few of the practical exercises I had demonstrated earlier that can be done anytime and anywhere. We truly enjoyed ourselves!

While, at first glance, working with older adults might seem totally irrelevant to my career goals, I have found this specific experience — along with my overall clinical rotation at Columbus Regional Health Care Hospital — to be thoroughly enriching. I’ve gained experience in effectively connecting with people from all walks of life. This, in turn, will help me connect better with people in my population of interest and serve them as a future leader. Through both education and acute nutrition interventions, my internship has allowed me to build skills in bridging the gaps between patients and clinicians and between community and public health professionals. I believe these tools will remain useful for the rest of my career.


Number 4

How have you pivoted in response to the coronavirus pandemic?

I’ve taken everything day by day and been grateful for the many blessings in disguise. I’m very family oriented, and after several years away — between going to school in Vermont to then living in Ecuador — the pandemic provided me with an opportunity to spend lots of quality time with my family in Northern Virginia. Since I moved to North Carolina last summer, UNC has been amazing at offering all kinds of support for which I am also grateful. So, with everything that has been going on (and not been going on) since the onset of this coronavirus pandemic, I’ve just tried my best to not get too ahead of myself while practicing gratitude.


Number 5

Who are you when you’re at home?

I’m a very focused yet friendly person, and it’s important for me to maintain meaningful relationships. Since N.C. is my new home, I like to make the time to email, call or send personal voice messages to my friends and family living elsewhere. I enjoy listening to a variety of music and podcasts, too. I also try to squeeze in some time for leisure reading. I’m currently reading a book my twin sister and I gifted to each other on our birthday this year called How to Do the Work by holistic psychologist Dr. Nicole Lepera.

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