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Passion for public health

March 14, 2019
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ANN ARBOR—School of Public Health graduate Melani Kekulawala didn’t always want to go to med school. Even though she started on the pre-med track, her passion for public health took her on an internship to Sri Lanka.

“I saw their amazing work in women’s health. They have one of the best midwife systems in the world which has reduced their maternal mortality rates significantly. I didn’t know any of those things before I started the internship,” said Kekulawala who just finished her masters in public health.

Kekulawala worked along with 30 Sri Lankan students to build the first breast cancer awareness program in Northern Sri Lanka. She said the campaign quickly gained momentum—pretty soon, people were calling their university, asking the student team if they could replicate the efforts elsewhere in the country.

Kekulawala’s commitment to public health took her on another internship next summer, this time to South Africa with Nesh Hanif from Department of African and African-American studies. Her cohort taught an HIV module to groups of South African citizens and organizations.

“The theme of my first two internships was empowerment—understanding that you should feel empowered about your own health and create ownership. Feeling like you can control certain things is the power of being a teacher—you’re more invested in the cause than if your only responsibility was to listen,” said Kekulawala.

This 2015 LSA graduate was drawn again to the global sphere when the time came to pick an internship for her master’s degree. This time, she chose to work in Ethiopia, where she helped design a family planning clinic and program.

“I was attracted because, once again, it was a merging of two of my passions—health and communications. I was excited because it’s hard to find something that directly fits those two things.”

It was then that Kekulawala realized it was time for her to reconsider the medical field. “It was the first time in my life that I saw maternal death, so it created this momentum in me. I wanted to be someone who could do research, but who also has clinical skills if I need to use them,” said Kekulawala.

This fall, Kekulawala will bring her global health knowledge to the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences in hopes of becoming an OBGYN. She hopes its proximity to Ann Arbor will allow her to commute for research.

“Who I am today is because of the University of Michigan. Here, I’ve felt a part of something bigger, because I’ve seen everyone around me working towards the creation of this inclusive campus community that’s bigger than all of us as individuals.”

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