Alumni

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

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

Alumnus Report: Health Policy

Aaron at the Senate office building

Pursuing an individualized major was one of the best decisions I made during my time at UConn. With my major, Health Policy, I set out to explore the connection between public and private policy and human health, relying upon a whole host of disciplines from economics and management to human rights and psychology. It was an enriching experience. It taught me to look at problems and their potential solutions in a multidimensional fashion and pushed me to consider many different perspectives — an important skill that is especially relevant today.

Fast forward three years and I am now bringing my Health Policy degree to bear as a Masters student at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Similar to the Individualized Major Program, the Mailman School emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to the study and practice of public health. My department, Sociomedical Sciences, is especially strong at this; it weaves together history, ethics, economics, and politics to understand the public health issues of our time. One of my favorite courses thus far has focused on the ethics of public health. Each class involved an open discussion about the political and ethical dimensions of public health policy, such as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages or mandating helmets for motorcyclists. Coming into that course, I was grateful to have taken my health policy coursework at UConn, where I learned (among other things) to identify the values that underlie policy decisions.

A highlight of my Columbia experience has been participating in the Health Justice Advocacy Clinic at the Columbia Law School. We were a group of law and public health students that set out to research lead hazards in public and private housing and to effect meaningful and lasting policy reform. My team worked with advocates in Ohio to pass local ordinances to strengthen pre-rental risk assessment requirements for private homes and apartments in Cleveland and Ohio at large. We are happy to report that just this week, Cleveland passed its first pre-rental lead hazard inspection ordinance. In addition, we sought to pass national legislation, The Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act, that would close loopholes in HUD’s inspection requirements for their public and publicly assisted housing programs (e.g., House Choice Vouchers, Section 8). Currently, families in certain housing programs are not guaranteed the same protections from lead poisoning as those afforded in other federally funded housing programs. We sought to fix that, and are proud to say that our bill has been introduced in both the US Senate and House of Representatives!

From global health and human rights to social policy and healthcare management, my individualized major provided me with a foundation to take on these exciting new experiences.

By Aaron Plotke
IMJR: Health Policy

Alumna Report: Neuroscience

Four years ago, I graduated from UConn with a Bachelor of Science in Developmental Neuropsychology. My plan of study included courses ranging from molecular biology of the brain to child and family development. I participated in multiple research projects, including one at a clinical neuroscience laboratory, with Dr. Deb Fine, studying autism spectrum disorders, and, because I wanted to know more about the science behind the clinical diagnosis, one at a behavioral neuroscience laboratory. My final research project, in the laboratory of Dr. R. Holly Fitch, explored the neuroanatomical effects of a candidate dyslexia gene in female and male rats. I presented this work at both the Frontiers of Undergraduate Research and the Behavioral Neuroscience Seminar Series in 2014.

Beata working on data filtering and analysis

I am currently a graduate student in the neuroscience program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field, combining biology, chemistry, and psychology, and our program requires us to understand it from each of these perspectives. As an individualized major, I was already prepared for these topics! In my current work, I examine how positive and negative stimuli affect learning in an animal model. I am also responsible for teaching a wide range of classes from Physiology to Writing for Psychologists. I have presented my work at a conference organized by the Society for Neuroscience in Washington D.C. and have traveled to San Diego and Chicago for other conferences organized by them. One of my favorite activities in graduate school has been my work with Girls Inc., a program that, among many other things, endeavors to keep teenage girls interested in science. I run multiple neuroscience lab days throughout the year to reach out to these young scientists. I am focused on helping other young students to find their way in academia, as the individualized major helped me to do.

Beata in the lab doing tissue staining

Although graduate school is challenging in many ways, I truly feel that the individualized major prepared me for it. The process of doing laboratory research, writing a thesis, and presenting my work helped me to focus on the scientific questions that I will explore during my career. And having an individualized major was an integral part of my acceptance to the doctoral program. The self-designed course of study helped my application stand out among the traditional majors and it illustrated my commitment to the field beyond the laboratory and the classroom. I am not sure where I will be after graduate school, but I can be sure of one thing: I will be in the field of neuroscience. And it is all thanks to my time in the individualized major program at UConn.

By Beata Kaminska-Kordowska
IMJR: Developmental Neuropsychology

Alumna Report: Serious Fun

Four years ago I stood on the third floor of Rowe, unsure of what I wanted to dedicate the next three years to learning about. I’d spent my first year at UConn exploring disciplines—and just when I’d hoped it would clarify my choices, it did the opposite. Instead, I was intrigued by the different lenses sociology, psychology, English literature, human development, and anthropology applied to the same subjects. How did family systems theory, Faulkner’s and Morrison’s fictional characters, and social determinants of well-being overlap? How did they differ? With these questions in mind I set out to study Cultural Influence on Youth Development.

My individualized major focused on the ways cultural narratives, circumstance, and media shape human development. I left UConn understanding the power of narrative – its ability to affect everything from which sneaker we buy to what we remember most easily, and, of course, our values and worldview. Stories, language, and people, and their intersection, were at the heart of it. Now, as a young professional in digital marketing, these three remain at the core of my work.

Through the Newman’s Own Foundation Fellowship I landed at SeriousFun Children’s Network, a global community of 30 camps and programs serving children living with serious illnesses and their families free of charge. At the Network support center, I manage social media channels and develop content. In short, I craft and tell stories about the life-changing work done at camp. A few years ago, I’d never imagined that content marketing, not seemingly like English literature, would be rooted in meaningful storytelling and relationship building, but by image and post rather than character and chapter. I’ve come to appreciate the layers of psychology and strategy that go into creating effective digital communications.

Sarah at the SeriousFun Support Center

My time at SeriousFun continues to deepen my understanding of youth development as well. From my experience as a volunteer at SeriousFun camps in Michigan, North Carolina, and Connecticut, such as The Hole in The Wall Gang Camp, I can tell you that camp really is life-changing. The effects of health challenges on kids and their families can be serious and far-reaching. Fear, stigma, and isolation strain identity, work-life balance, relationships with others, and family dynamics, taking a toll on overall health. Under such trying circumstances, camp serves as a haven. In its fully-accessible and all-inclusive glory, it is a place to reclaim joy, restore confidence, renew hope, and rediscover possibility. Shared laughter and free play is some powerful stuff!

When I designed my major, I didn’t know where it would take me or just how much my daily work would relate! Now two years out of school, I’m still not sure what the future will hold. But I’ve realized that’s par for the course. Thankfully, I am more confident about a few things. And that’s just how important looking between disciplines, reaching across silos, and staying curious can be. I’m grateful everyday for the interdisciplinary perspectives I gained through my major. I think there are few things as applicable as those perspectives—no matter your profession—in today’s world.

By Sarah Luft
IMJR: Cultural Influence on Youth Development

Alumnus Report: Ben Simmons-Telep

I am a proud graduate of the Individualized Major Program, and about four months ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a successful stint at my current job to pursue a graduate degree. I have submitted applications to a number of Master’s Degree programs in International Development Studies, all of which focus on preparing students with the technical skills and context to solve global issues of human well-being. As I await my admissions decisions, I have found myself reflecting on the confluence of events that have led me down this particular career path.

After graduating high school, I moved to Lima, Peru as part of a student exchange program where I attended university classes, built a new community of friends, and became fluent in Spanish. During my time there, I was involved in several humanitarian aid projects which included working with local chapters of Rotary International to deliver hundreds of donated wheelchairs to remote Andean communities.

Ben with a friend
Ben with a friend

I returned home inspired, with a newfound commitment to humanitarian service and eager to create a project of my own that could help to alleviate the poverty and suffering that I had witnessed. I founded an aid project, which I called Project Peru. Over the course of two years, I raised over $8,000 to purchase school supplies, commodity baskets, and Christmas presents for over 300 families. Leveraging the network that I had formed in Peru, I worked closely with a number of local partners to distribute the supplies to rural Peruvian schools and orphanages during the holiday seasons of 2011 and 2012.

However, something was wrong. Despite the project’s objective success, I became disenchanted with its mission. I became aware of a dark side to humanitarian aid, characterized by oppressive power dynamics, class tensions, and patronage. In addition, the project’s impact was superficial, unsustainable and its whole premise lacked a strong empirical foundation. Gifting Christmas presents did not tangibly improve anyone’s condition and presumed a diagnosis that was not based on evidence. This realization led me down a line of questioning that ultimately shaped the trajectory of my career and studies during the ensuing years. I found myself asking questions such as, “How might I have used the money differently? Are there sustainable models for development that genuinely increase human well-being?”

In an effort to answer these questions, I turned to academics. At the University of Connecticut, I declared an individualized major in international relations with a focus on economic development and built an interdisciplinary curriculum designed to explore poverty through several diverse lenses, including anthropology, sociology, human rights, and microeconomics. I gravitated toward the structure provided by economic analysis and declared a second major in economics and a minor in human rights. My studies provided me with a solid foundation in economic analysis, but I struggled to reconcile classical economic theory with what I observed to be true with respect to the nature of human well-being – a condition that seemed to be less a function of consumption and income, and more a product of opportunities, freedoms, and communal relationships. This conflict was reflected in my senior capstone project which offered an interdisciplinary critique of economic interpretations of happiness.

Ben Simmons Telep at work
Ben at work

I became fascinated by the disruptive potential of social enterprise in the field of development, and after graduating I began working for a social enterprise start-up incubator. In my current role as Director of Programs, I have designed and implemented several successful high impact entrepreneurial programs, including a nationally awarded accelerator that has been associated with the creation of over 50 jobs and 3.5 million dollars of private investment.

I am pursuing a graduate degree in International Development Studies because I am ready to take the next step in my career. I believe that social innovation may play a major role in shaping the next chapter of global development, but in order to explore its application, I must first equip myself with a deep technical and theoretical understanding of current development practices and methodologies. As I reflect on my path over the past ten years, I am grateful to the IMJR program for providing me with both the support and latitude to pursue my interest in this field. The interdisciplinary approach was not only highly relevant to my professional experience after graduation, but it has provided me with a well-rounded academic foundation, and I am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my studies at the graduate level.

By Ben Simmons-Telep
IMJR: International Relations

IMJR Alum: Elise Ursin

Three months ago, I moved to Cambridge to become a Curriculum Writing Fellow at Bridge International Academies (or Bridge, for short). How and why I ended up at this company has everything to do with my time at UConn.

I graduated from the Individualized Major Program with a degree in International Relations. I was like pretty much everyone else I knew who devoted four years to studying global affairs: we all wanted to do something important. But how exactly do you achieve a global impact? And how do you do it responsibly, without it being a vanity project?

Elise Ursin with Bridge students in Africa
Elise Ursin, with poster of Bridge Students

Bridge opened its first academy in Nairobi, Kenya in 2009. Since then, the company has opened over 400 schools and expanded into Uganda, Nigeria, and soon India. It controls every aspect of creating and managing the schools, from building the academies to running the classroom. Scale is Bridge’s secret to success: using technology, data, and some heavy initial investments, Bridge takes advantage of efficiencies that reduce overhead costs and allow for enormous reach (without sacrificing academic quality). That’s why I have the opportunity to directly impact the education of hundreds of kids on a daily basis.

A day in the life of a Curriculum Writing Fellow is busy, challenging, and gratifying. We write the textbooks handed to our pupils every day. We come up with the math problems they do for homework every night. And perhaps most interestingly, we write the teacher guides that their instructors read, word-for-word, in every class, every day. Though scripted lessons are a controversial method in the United States, Bridge’s massive data team has found that they work really well in our academies. In countries with far fewer trained and quality teachers than the U.S., writing lessons and delivering them on teacher tablets allows us to maintain a high standard of quality for each pupil at an affordable cost. And by using teacher tablets, Bridge can compile data in real time about each individual classroom and use it to constantly improve our approach. In other words, we are always striving to do better.

And I get to be a part of it. Knowing that the hard work I invest in my job actually means something, and has impact, is incredibly satisfying. The fact that hundreds of kids are going to read what I write motivates me to create the best, most creative lessons I possibly can. I leave work every day feeling like I’ve done the best thing I possibly could with my time. As a student myself studying International Relations just a few years ago, this is what I strove to do.

by Elise Ursin

IMJR Alum: Michael Jann

Do you wonder what Individualized Major alums are doing?

Here is feature story on one alum, who created an individualized major at the intersection of Natural Resources and the Environment and English, back in the late 1970s, when the program was still young and was housed in a unit called the “Center for Educational Innovation” located in Wood Hall.

Meet Michael Jann, who graduated in 1980, and has been a comedy writer for Leno and Fallon.

Michael Jann
Michael Jann