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Arnold School of Public Health

May graduate pursues career working with nonprofit organizations after experiencing her own health crisis

April 9, 2018 | Erin Bluvas,

Lake Bluff, Illinois, native Sara Svendsen was a healthy 15 year-old when the ninth grader went home early from school one day with flu-like symptoms. Her parents brought Svendsen to the Chicago Children’s Network Miracle Hospital when she began to experience joint pain and difficulty breathing.     

Tests revealed Svendsen’s lungs were 95 percent full of blood, and doctors diagnosed her with Wegener’s disease. She spent the better part of the next month in the intensive care unit, including two and a half weeks in a medically-induced coma after flat lining. When Svendsen woke up, she had lost a lot of muscle mass. She couldn’t walk or make her hands function properly.

After a long rehabilitation, Svendsen was determined to pay her miraculous recovery forward. She enrolled at UofSC and immediately immersed herself in academic, professional and extracurricular service work.

As a Morale Team Member of USC Dance Team Marathon, Svendsen shared her personal story with the event’s 1,500 attendees and helped raise funds for the Child Life program at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. As a Changing Carolina Peer Leader, she served as a resource for students by promoting health and wellness during presentations to University 101 classes and at other events.

Academically, Svendsen found her career calling when she switched her major to public health. “I have always been most passionate when what I am doing helps another person,” says Svendsen, who will be presenting at Discover USC 2018. “My past medical issues peaked my interest in the public health field.”

A May graduate, the Dean’s List recipient is currently working to achieve Graduation with Leadership Distinction. Next, she will pursue a master’s in nonprofit management at DePaul University while working part-time at a non-profit organization.

Svendsen credits both her personal health challenges and undergraduate experiences with helping her focus her career aspirations on the nonprofit sector. Within her program, she benefited from developing relationships with faculty who became mentors and helped her realize what the public health field had to offer.

“Dr. April Winningham's HPEB 300 class helped me initially realize my love for nonprofits,” Svendsen says of the health promotion, education, and behavior instructor. “The class focused largely on grant writing and program planning, and I realized that I was passionate about developing and designing these programs that help the public.”

“Dr. Kara Montgomery, my advisor and professor, has been such a help in talking out future career paths related to the public health field,” Svendsen adds. “She has been full of great ideas and suggestions for different opportunities to pursue, and has shown me how much is out there in the public health world.”

Her passion was confirmed last summer when she completed an internship with Distinctive Schools, a 501c3 nonprofit charter school management network in Chicago. “I felt so connected to what I was doing and felt rewarded as I went home every day, which helped me realize that I would love to work in the nonprofit world long-term,” Svendsen says. “I found that nonprofits are the middle ground where all of my interests overlap and where I would be able to make the biggest impact.”

With interests in health and educational equity, Svendsen would like to work for a health- or education-based nonprofit. Long term, she’d like to lead a small- to medium-sized nonprofit organization, or even establish one herself.

“Get involved with one of the organizations through USC or the Arnold School,” Svendsen advises other students. “When I became a Changing Carolina Peer Leader, it helped me meet so many people who I had classes with, and I’ve heard the same of other groups. It is great to be able to get involved with the peers you see on a day to day basis, and builds connections that you will have beyond the four years of college.”

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