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Arnold School of Public Health


I Am Public Health: Jessica Escobar Alegría

March 1, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Jessica Escobar Alegría’s (Escobar) practical experience with government and United Nations agencies helped reveal her future niche in public health. After earning an undergraduate degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Universidad Evangélica de El Salvador and a master’s in International Nutrition and Epidemiology from Cornell University, the El Salvador native held technical roles collaborating with the World Food Program, Ministry of Health of El Salvador, World Health Organization, Pan-American Health Organization, and USAID.

“During my work experience holding mainly technical positions and navigating institutional and political arenas, I got interested in better understanding what determines sustainability of food and nutrition security policies during presidential transitions,” Escobar says. “The lack of strategies for working through uncertainty during transitions results in the serious and shared problem that policies are discontinued. Technical-political teams do not usually foresee that the next transition is imminent and that their agreements, resources, and multi-sectorial collaborative processes are never guaranteed to continue.”

She insists that other students can develop their own unique research perspectives as well. “Invest the time to reflect on your work experiences to help you identify gaps in the current knowledge base,” she says. “Actively engaging in this process will help you to identify a research interest that contributes to the knowledge in an area you can confidently address.”

After Escobar developed her research ideas, she started looking for a program that would allow her to integrate socio-political and public nutrition perspectives. She decided to apply to the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior’s (HPEB) doctoral program after speaking with HPEB Professor and Chair Edward Frongillo.

“Dr. Frongillo encouraged me to explore the possibilities of bringing together course work and faculty members from the Arnold School of Public Health and other schools at USC with whom they had developed a strong network of ongoing multidisciplinary collaboration,” Escobar says. “I was honored to be accepted and to have successfully completed my coursework and dissertation requirements with the advice of my committee—which is made up of experts on public health, nutrition, political sciences, and international business.”

Since her enrollment in 2011, Escobar has customized her studies to fully examine the issues surrounding the sustainability of food and nutrition security policies during presidential transitions. “Keep your goal in focus at the time that you write your statement of purpose for your application and all throughout your public health program of study,” she advises. “Make the most of every class and every paper to write about your research interest and to think about it from every perspective possible until you are ready to propose and defend your work.”

Escobar’s steadfast focus on her research interests enabled her to discover new insights. “My research has revealed the specific forces that shape the dynamic process determining the sustainability of food and nutrition security policies during presidential transitions,” she says.

Outside the classroom, Escobar exhibits that same drive. At the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, she has presented both her dissertation findings (2013-2016) and the results of a collaborative project between HPEB and the College of Social Work on the experiences of hunger as reported by children of Hispanic food insecure families in South Carolina (2012). She has also presented at the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities’ Annual Nutrition Symposium.

During her doctoral program, Escobar spent her summers collaborating with the Micronutrient Initiativein Canada (2011), the Pan-American Health Organization in Washington D.C. (2012), and the International Food Policy Research Institute—also in D.C. She is currently collaborating with the International Food Policy Research Institute in India on the external evaluation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded program, Partnership and Opportunities to strengthen and Harmonize Actions for Nutrition.

“This program promotes better decision-making through sharing knowledge with national and state officials and staff,” she explains. “It is a very exciting opportunity to apply my dissertation findings as India recently experienced a prime ministerial transition during this program’s implementation.”

After Escobar’s August graduation, she plans to continue applying the knowledge base she has built on sustainability of food and nutrition security policies during presidential transitions. “Specifically I’d like to use this knowledge to inform how transition processes can be understood and taken into account when collaborating with developing countries in designing, implementing and evaluating public health and food and nutrition security policies,” she says. Ideally, Escobar’s future role will involve working for an institution with a global approach on contributing to research-informed efforts to reducing poverty, food and nutrition insecurity, undernutrition, and obesity. She would also like to help improve equitable human development.

For other students who are trying to find their place in public health, Escobar has some additional advice. “Feedback from professors and peers is invaluable,” she says. For Escobar, those invaluable professors are Frongillo, Christine Blake (HPEB), Lee Walker (previously Political Science), and Gerald McDermott (International Business). “They have provided advice and supported my work during my time at USC, allowing me to develop my professional interests and research ideas into applicable products,” she says. “I would summarize their influence in three ways: to strive to translate scientific findings into key messages for immediate use in our field; to always take the time to listen before I answer; and to make family the priority even when you perform a highly demanding position.”  

Seeking a balance among work and personal life is important to Escobar—so is making time to give back to the community. In addition to promoting and practicing sports with friends, she enjoys volunteering with Girls on the Run Columbia, Catholic Charities of the Midlands, and the Hispanic Ministry of St. Peters Catholic Church.

Escobar also believes it’s important to stay involved with the people whose health you’d like to enhance. “Enlighten your interest in public health by constantly interacting with the communities whose health you are dedicated to improve,” she says. “Listen to what they have to say, and get the message they convey.”