Author: Michael

Alumna Blog: Health and Social Inequalities

Doing the individualized major at UConn was by far the best decision I made. The road to my individualized major wasn’t straightforward. I was a junior at UConn and finally coming to terms that I didn’t want to go to medical school. I had been a student organizer on campus with CT Students for a Dream, an immigrant rights organization, and my values had become very clear to me: I believe that healthcare and immigrant rights are human rights, and both are intricately connected and crucial for the sake of public health and to achieve health equity.

Kati testifying in front of the CT Human Services Committee on February 14.
Kati testifying in front of the CT Human Services Committee on February 14.

I majored in Health and Social Inequalities with minors in Human Rights and Latino Studies. I took classes in biology, sociology, anthropology, allied health and human rights to name a few. The individualized major gave me the opportunity to recover my studies from the first two and a half years of my studies, to connect with my values, and feel like I was getting the most out of my education. I loved it. This path allowed me to combine my academic and personal interests without feeling like I needed to pick one over the other.

The faculty advisors each individualized major student needs to have allowed me to have support from several professors in a way I did not have before. These connections quickly led to a scholarship, an internship at a local health department and free learning opportunity to be trained as a medical interpreter prior to graduating. I left UConn feeling confident and proud of what I had learned and prepared for a career in public health or public policy.

Soon after graduating from UConn I began to work as a Community Organizer and then as an Organizing Specialist at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. I advocated, coordinated and mobilized partners to support two successful campaigns at the state capitol. I was a co-founder for the HUSKY 4 Immigrants campaign, which is working to extend CT’s Medicaid program (HUSKY) to all income-eligible residents regardless of their immigration status. The second campaign, Doulas4CT, focused on getting doulas services covered by the state’s Medicaid program. Both campaigns allowed me to tap into the education I received at UConn, often referring back to my capstone paper or academic articles about the U.S. healthcare system, race and reproduction, and the right to healthcare.

Currently, I work as a Policy Analyst at Community Catalyst, a leading national health advocacy organization. I provide policy support to state partners who are pursuing initiatives to expand access to healthcare coverage to everyone, regardless of their immigration status. At the federal level, I have had the opportunity to do administrative advocacy with leading healthcare and immigrant rights advocates to identify solutions to improve immigrants’ access to healthcare.

My Individualized Major and organizing work set me up for success – in ways I don’t think I fully comprehended when I was still at UConn. I’m glad that today in many ways I continue the education and advocacy work I did as an undergraduate.

By Kati Villeda (’18)

Visual Journalism and Culture in Florence

Izzi Barton in Italy

In my freshman year, I developed my major, “Visual Journalism and Culture”. Coming into college, I was unsure of a major that seemed to capture all that I wanted out of my education. I worked at the town newspaper in my hometown while I was in high school and was interested in learning more about people and different cultures. My major is a combination of anthropology, communication, journalism, sociology, and Human Rights. I have taken courses in all of these areas to help develop my understanding of the human experience, and appropriate ways to document people’s personal stories. I want to help people’s voices be heard and learn how others view the world. That is why I chose to go abroad during my junior year at UConn.

After the cancelation of the program that I had planned to take in Belfast, Ireland, I was offered a General Studies program in Florence, Italy. I was worried about going to a country where I didn’t speak the language and was not sure what courses were going to be offered. The change was a blessing in disguise; once I saw the course list I was relieved and excited about the fun and engaging classes I had to choose from. In a city with so much history and culture, it was amazing to be able to take courses that taught me more about where I was. I took Intercultural Communication, Photography: Portfolio in Florence, and Social Media and Social food as well as the Italian course that everyone was required to take.

The Intercultural Communications course developed my understanding of my major because I was able to learn about cultural norms from the perspective of an individual that lives in a completely different culture than ours. Most of my courses at UConn have been taught with a focus on American culture or global culture from an American perspective. Being able to learn from a completely different point of view was very educational because it helped me develop my anthropological skill of cultural relativism. We had countless discussions on the differences between our cultures as well as “Firenze vs Florence” meaning comparing the touristic side of Florence to the local city of Firenze.

The photography portfolio course was also eye-opening because I learned about artistic photography from a professional Italian photographer. He would go to fashion shows in Milan on the weekends and bring his photos back to class on Monday so we could analyze them with him. I gained a deeper understanding of the art of photography and how to connect with subjects through the camera as well as face to face. I learned about all sorts of niches of photography and got to witness the professor’s editing technique. One of the most helpful methods of learning to me is getting to watch a professional go through their process and compare that to others’ methods.

A photo of Chianti by Izzi Barton

Overall, having the chance to challenge myself by living in a foreign place gave me time to think deeply about how my experience is relative. I felt as if I was getting an opportunity to do Anthropological fieldwork as I took long walks around the city and made connections with local shop owners and learned their stories. I got to see firsthand the differences between life in different places and the norms that cultures create. My studies in Florence promoted my desire to learn about as many different cultures as I am able to. It was extremely challenging at times, but it is one of the best learning experiences of my life.

By Izzi Barton
IMJR: Visual Journalism and Culture

Siara Maldonado and Public Health

Siara Maldonado ’21 (CLAS), an individualized major in Global Health, is currently pursuing a dual Master’s degree in Social Work and Public Health at the University of Maryland Baltimore and John Hopkins University. She was recently interviewed by Heidi Pineda for the Center for Career Development. In the article, Siara describes her journey to the individualized major, the internships that she pursued with community based health organizations and hospitals, and the factors involved in her decision to join a graduate program in social work and public health. To read the article, please follow this link.

Siara Maldonado

Catherine Pomposi and U.S. Climate Policy

Catherine Pomposi ’10 (CLAS), an individualized major in Environmental Analysis (double major with statistics), is currently a Climate Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She was recently interviewed by Addison Magrath ’23 (SFA) for UConn Today. In the article, Catherine describes her major and how it set the foundation for her graduate work in climate science. She also describes her work in then-Senator Kamala Harris’ office, where she contributed to legislation on climate adaptation and resilience, reflects on the skills that she learned at UConn, and offers advice to students with similar professional goals. To read the article, please follow this link.

An evening view of the campus skyline on Sept. 20, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Internship at Google

I decided to pursue an Individualized Major in Information Systems and Analytics because I wanted to combine coursework ranging from Analytics to Quantitative Economics. My Individualized Major has been critical in the development of my technical and quantitative skill sets. I knew that by creating my major I would stand out versus other job candidates because of the unique development and application of my coursework with my job experiences.

Danny at work

This past summer (2021) I was a gTech gCare BOLD Intern at Google. The BOLD Internship Program focuses on building opportunities for leadership and development. The team I worked with this summer functioned within the gTech organization, where I worked with colleagues to troubleshoot technical issues affecting Google Ads accounts. I also worked with a team of interns to develop a Python Colab notebook that analyzed operations and performance data. This experience helped to create a community with my cohort; every day was met with a new challenge that required innovative problem solving to offer timely solutions for Google Ads clients all across the world.

With the conclusion of my internship, I am excited to be returning full-time to Google next year as a Solutions Consultant! It was an amazing summer, and I would not have had the opportunity without my Individualized Major in Information Systems and Analytics.

By Danny Lesh (’21)
IMJR: Information Systems and Analytics

MPH and Me

I am Brielle Berkowitz, a senior in the Individualized Major Program studying Global Healthcare. When I came to IISP in 2018 I knew I intended to get my Masters of Public Health, but I really had nowhere to start. I knew a few things about SOPHAS (the application system), the GRE, and recommendation letters. It was difficult to know where to find advice. However, what really matters is your passion for public health.

Brielle at the Covid Center

The IMJR program was a great advantage to me because I designed my own major to reflect my passion for public health. I was able to choose my advisors who all had their MPH degrees and utilize them for advice on graduate schools and personal statements. My major gave me the flexibility to take a lot of public health courses as well as health insurance, anthropology, and human rights concentrations. My faculty advisors and Monica van Beusekom were a tremendous help in finding courses that reflected my major and what I would possibly take in graduate school.

Although getting experience in public health is difficult as an undergrad, there are many clubs and groups on campus to get you exposed. I went on a MEDLIFE program to Peru, where I volunteered in clinics. I also utilized the Education Abroad office to get an internship in London, which was cancelled when Covid-19 hit. Instead, I worked as a Covid Caring Partner and helped families make connections to those in the facility where I worked. I gained invaluable experience on care management and administrative work. There are opportunities everywhere you look, and demonstrating passion for public health as well as gaining experience is great when applying or seeing if you enjoy this field.

Graduate admissions offices recognized the value of my major. For example, due to my knowledge of the social determinants of health, I was better able to understand factors leading to the cervical cancer epidemic in Peru. The freedom and focus of class choice I had due to being in IMJR made me a well-rounded applicant as I was able to demonstrate a variety of skills. It is important to recognize how much you can gain from the individualized major and how to apply it in an admissions essay. I was able to say how my classes prepared me for the public health field and showed my passion for continuing the work I was doing.

For those interested in graduate work in public health, I wish you luck in applying to schools!

By Brielle Berkowitz
Global Healthcare

Transit Plan for Detroit

To meet his capstone requirement for his individualized major in Sustainable Urban Design, Aaron Johnson completed a project on Sauk Trail East and contributed the video below as part of his presentation for Frontiers Spring 2021, the exhibit of undergraduate student research.

Sauk Trail East is an urban mobility research and design study following a proposal for the world’s first public connected autonomous vehicle corridor (CAV-C). The intended route links Ann Arbor to the City of Detroit, whose residents have faced severe historic and ongoing issues surrounding transportation equity and access. This study examines CAV-C’s potential to relink Detroit communities via changes to land use, modal choice, and intermodal prioritization.

Aaron Johnson
Sustainable Urban Design

End of Life Care in Belgium

This past January, I traveled to Ghent, Belgium for a two-week interdisciplinary program on palliative and end of life care. This program was hosted by Artevelde University College Ghent and organized by the COHERE Academy, a non-profit organization dedicated to collaboration in higher education to promote innovation, education, and best practices in the fields of health, social care, and rehabilitation.

Simone in Brussels

This interdisciplinary program consisted of students from seven European universities and the UConn School of Nursing. Students came from a wide range of disciplines, including nursing, speech pathology, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. The program sought to educate students on the nuances of end of life and palliative care through active discussions about our respective countries’ healthcare policies and social climates surrounding end of life care, site visits and volunteering with patients, and presentations from experts in the many fields relevant to a patient’s medical experience at the end of life. During the program we also discussed many of the philosophical aspects of end of life care. One of the most powerful experiences of this program was listening to a panel of healthcare professionals debate the implications of euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium. This experience prompted me to further explore the philosophical arguments for and against the legalization of physician assisted suicide in the United States by writing a paper about it for Public Health and Policy in an Aging Society (PUBH 5475) this past Spring semester.

As an individualized major in Healthcare and Aging, my major encompasses a wide range of courses on aging, healthcare systems and policy, social determinants of health, and healthcare justice. I originally worried that my field of study was too niche and I wouldn’t be able to find an international program that met my interest in the intersection of healthcare and public policy. However, after hearing about a friend in the School of Nursing’s experience in Belgium, I knew that this program would be a great fit. I worked with the Education Abroad office to connect with the School of Nursing, and was accepted to participate in this program despite not being a nursing major. I encourage everyone considering an individualized major to seek out opportunities that may seem unconventional or are in a different department or school.

Although I had learned about international healthcare systems and policies in my courses, I was able to experience another country’s healthcare system and approaches to end of life care firsthand. I greatly appreciated the experience of discussing such an important topic with students from different backgrounds. Upon returning to the United States, this experience fostered my critical examination of the U.S. healthcare system in comparison to that of Belgium, both in my course work and later in each country’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. This experience emphasized the variety of approaches for handling medical issues between different countries and cultures. I left Belgium with a more global perspective on healthcare, and a strong desire to improve healthcare policy here in the U.S. Most importantly however, I relish the friendships I formed with my peers and the desire to pursue some form of postgraduate education abroad that came from this experience.

By Simone Fournier
IMJR: Healthcare and Aging

Predicting Outcomes of Soccer Games

“All my picks are locks, bro”
-Everyone who bets on sports

My first ever sports bet was Over 121.5 for the Virginia vs. Virginia Tech basketball game on February 18, 2019. Virginia scored a layup with 7 seconds left to win 64-58, meaning that my Over hit by half a point. Put another way, I was in hopeful agony for about 99.7% of the game before things just barely came together at the end. This is a fair metaphor for how my thesis, Predicting Outcomes of Soccer Games, ended up coming together.

For the majority of my time as an individualized Data Science major I thought that I would do a thesis on economics, the domain I chose for the major, but when the time came to choose a topic, I decided on soccer, my favorite sport. My thoughts then drifted to the most important question of any sports match: who will win? Draws occur rather frequently in soccer, so instead of a typical two-outcome classification problem, I was looking at a much more difficult three-outcome problem. Nevertheless, I found a Kaggle dataset with detailed statistics from the English Premier League and began to create a model that would predict the outcome of each league game.

English Premier League soccer

I made pretty good progress in a short period of time. After about six weeks of work, I presented my findings with a poster at the UConn Sports Analytics Symposium this past October. But I could hardly stop at just predicting winners – after all, even an octopus could do that. The natural next step was to use my model to make bets. So, I developed a comprehensive betting strategy using my model, in which I optimized for which outcomes to bet on and how much money to wager for each bet. This marked a key change in my process, in which I became more focused on decision-making when it came to bets as opposed to just trying to make the most accurate model. Decisions are what ultimately create impact, and the number I was most interested in was my account balance rather than the percentage of games predicted correctly.

My work culminated in a real-time betting experiment, in which I used my model and betting strategy to make actual bets over a four-month period using an initial balance of $200. This is the only true test of how any betting methodology performs. I am happy to say that I was relatively successful in this regard. After being in the red for the majority of the time, a strong showing in the final weekend of the experiment put the final balance at $223.40 for a slight profit. The sample size of 79 bets is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, and I could go on and on about how poor my data was, but I learned a lot doing this thesis and I believe that I’ve set myself up for future success in this area.

by Jack Schooley
IMJR: Data Science

Esports Marketing

Entering UConn as a French Major, something felt…off…so I immediately began conversing with advisors in the IMJR Program to go over options. I took class upon class to figure out my niche, and it was only in the last year of my education that I found what I needed to study – and it wasn’t in the University catalog. “Social Branding and Visual Media”, the major that I designed, explores digital marketing and branding techniques to enact social change. This could seem a bit flowery and without real-world application, but I would challenge that it’s the exact opposite. With a focus on effective and realistic application and a backbone in research and real-world context, the major’s design opened doors for me that I would otherwise have not even known existed.

In March 2019, I was a granted a remote position as the Head Post-Producer and Cultural Liaison for the largest all-female esports organization in Canada: “Team Sailor Scouts.” The organization is well-known in the Québec Esports community for its aptitude, inclusion, and level of professionalism. It caters to fans of all class and creed, but mainly to the noted minority in the world of competitive video games: women. Although young women make up 66% of the casual gaming industry, fewer than 2% of signed professional players are women. Additionally, women face abuse on a day-to-day basis within their respective games, the majority reporting having encountered racist, sexist, and homophobic comments regularly.

Emily at the 18th annual LAN ETS, capturing footage for Team Sailor Scouts.

For Team Sailor Scouts, I have created digital assets for our social media pages, advocated for further positive inclusion of women in gaming spaces and the ever-growing industry of esports. We have worked with organizations such as Ubisoft, RDS, Esports Central, Oshko Computers, and the Québec Breast Cancer Foundation to raise awareness and funds for the cause. We have given lectures at schools all over Canada, speaking to both male and female students about erasing stigmas against video games and presenting them as a viable career path regardless of gender. At the moment, I am using intercultural communication skills learned throughout the course of my time in the IMJR program to bring Team Sailor Scouts’ message to the United States, where we hope to expand our presence. Creating digital materials, using methods from my coursework, and framing them in a way that could best reach our audience to create change, we’ve successfully increased our voice and honed it to be loud, clear, and perfectly pitched.

I could not have asked for a better opportunity to have presented itself; finding work that matches not only my two majors, but also one of my favorite hobbies and my personal values, is a very rare opportunity. The one most important piece of advice I can give anyone seeking to enroll in the Individualized Major Program (or even beyond) is to follow your passions, because, at the end of the day, if what you’re doing doesn’t make you happy, then why do it?

By Emily Côté
IMJR: Social Branding and Visual Media