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Photography by Melody Timothee

Anne Jean Baptiste stumbled into the public health program at the University of Miami (UM) by accident.

But the introduction to her first public health course proved transformative for Jean Baptiste, expanding her understanding of health inequalities. It helped her see that she didn’t have to become a doctor (a profession she wasn’t excited about) to make a positive impact on the health of people in underserved communities.

“Becoming a public health major made my life fall into place,” says the 21-year-old, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health when she graduates. 

In the meantime, she has already started putting her passion into action. She provides education and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to young adults as a community outreach coordinator in Miami-Dade County. She also serves as an at-large youth representative for The AIDS Institute.

We asked Jean Baptiste about her studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what she had to say.

This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.

What prompted you to get into your field of study?

Growing up as a first generation immigrant in a minority community meant I had few resources and guidance, especially when it came to navigating academia.

Before enrolling at UM, I was unaware of the various [career paths] that were available in healthcare. I believed that my only option was to become a doctor, but I wasn’t passionate about that profession. 

I applied to UM as a biology major and somehow got accepted as a nursing major. I knew I did not want to be a nurse. So, I hastily told my advisor I would like to switch my major to public health, thinking it was the same as health sciences, a popular major among premed students.

Through the Introduction to Public Health course, I realized this specialty went beyond the bounds of my previous understanding of health. I learned about intersectionality, social determinants of health, health disparities, and ways that I can enact change in my community.

It made me realize I wanted to devote my life to public health. 

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Can you tell us about the work you’ve already done in public health?

I serve as a testing counselor and community outreach coordinator at Adolescent Care and Testing Services in the UM Health System. There, I provide free testing for HIV and STIs and education to adolescents and young adults within Miami-Dade County.

I’m also the Miami-Dade at-large youth representative for The AIDS Institute. I have the opportunity to provide insight into the youths’ needs and concerns surrounding sexual health. I plan on continuing my education on HIV and STIs and broaden my scope to other infectious diseases in the future.

What obstacles do you envision encountering as you move toward your goals?

The main obstacle I envision myself encountering is complacency. 

I realize that the road toward my goal of becoming a public health professional will be filled with difficulties and I will face pushback from every angle when attempting to enact change. But I never want to feel like I’ve done enough. To me, enough is the bare minimum. 

I plan on going above and beyond in every goal I set for myself. There will always be someone or something I can be of service to, and I hope to always passionately embody the role they need me to. 

An obstacle that I have dealt with as I’ve moved toward my goal is convincing others that I, along with other healthcare professionals, want the best for them. The mistrust toward the medical industry keeps growing, but I cannot allow that to deter me from doing meaningful work. 

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Why is it important to reduce health inequities in the Black community, and how do you plan to do this?

Racial health inequality is a public health emergency that has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black Americans are about twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans.

This staggering trend highlights a health disparity that is present in virtually every aspect of [healthcare] in the United States. 

The inequalities that the Black community faces are rooted in systemic discrimination in healthcare settings, limited access to quality care, and social determinants of health, such as education and access to healthy food.

Although addressing racial health inequality will require large-scale changes to our healthcare system, I can still make an impact. 

I plan to reduce health inequalities in the Black community by using my privilege of being in spaces that we have historically been excluded from to advocate for the needs of my community. 

What message would you like to give to the Black community?

The Black community has been fighting against systemic oppression and mistreatment for centuries, and many of us have reached a point of exhaustion or feeling as if our efforts are in vain. I want to remind the Black community that we have risen above great injustices and will continue to champion our rights. 

The events that transpired during the past year have shown that we must come together to dismantle the systemically racist and exclusionary institutions of this country. 

The conversation surrounding inequality is often framed around the oppressed instead of the privileged individuals who can use their place in society to enact change.

Those in a place of privilege must not be afraid to speak up for the Black community — otherwise, they are complacent to the mistreatment of us.

Use your voice, your resources, and the spaces that you embody to advocate for marginalized communities.