Hiwot Ekuban: reflections on how service at Carolina led to a career helping others

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By Hiwot A. Ekuban

Hiwot Ekuban in South AfricaBefore Carolina, my experiences with service were largely short-term endeavors, which I did in order to fulfill some sort of high school club requirement. However, as a soon-to-be Carolina alum, I can say with confidence that my philosophy of service has since expanded.

Not only should we serve, we must use our talents to fight systemic inequities, locally and globally. Service work should not be limited to well-intended “volunteerism” or mere conscientiousness. We all have a responsibility to eliminate structural inequality by targeting its root causes, not just treating the symptoms.

APPLES Service-Learning was key to transforming my perspective on effective community service.

APPLES is a student-led, staff supported organization that offers multiple programs to connect students to academic-enriched service experiences. Ultimately, APPLES championed my ideals of social justice while introducing me to new concepts regarding public service, such as the importance of community asset mapping, the role of policy in embedding social inequities, and the value of forming cooperative partnerships between multiple stakeholders.

I got involved with APPLES in my first year through the Alternative Break program. As a former APPLES Alternative Spring Break: Latinx Communities participant and break leader, I explored health disparities within the Latinx community that are inflated by a lack of immigration reform, ineffective labor laws, limited language access, racial discrimination and other forms of institutionalized bias.

Hiwot Ekuban on an APPLES alternative spring breakThe highlight of my experience was learning about the unique challenges that target migrant farmworkers’ access to health from Student Action with Farmworkers, a nonprofit organization in Durham, North Carolina. Despite contributing to a multimillion-dollar food industry, migrant farmworkers cannot afford the produce they harvest, much less health coverage. Their constant exposure to toxic pesticides puts them at risk for many chronic illnesses. Ineffective labor regulations, language barriers, lack of transportation and fear of deportation further marginalizes migrant farmworkers as a community and limits their access to health care.

By the end of the alternative spring break experience, I realized that the social determinants of health must be remedied in order to eliminate health inequities among marginalized communities. I decided to pursue a field that allows me to confront unethical public policy and empower vulnerable populations to sustain preventative health initiatives.

I was pleased to find the BSPH Health Policy and Management (HPM) program offered at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. The HPM program allowed me to study ways that policy enables health disparities and further stratifies the health of society by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, documentation status, socioeconomic status, geographic location, religious affiliation and ability level.

Over time my approach to service has evolved to a systems-focused approach to eliminate social inequity, specifically health inequity. Once I graduate, I will return to my hometown of Concord, North Carolina to continue service at Cabarrus-Rowan Community Health Center, a clinic that offers sliding-fee payments to folks who cannot afford health services. One day, I envision incorporating my background in public health in my future career as a primary care physician.

Words cannot express my gratitude to APPLES for illuminating my true passions, and for the countless mentors, friends, community partners and educators for supporting me on this journey.