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Arnold School of Public Health

Fulbright Scholarship supports LEAP student’s journey to bring health equity to all

April 6, 2023 | Erin Bluvas,

Samantha Johnson knows privilege, and she knows inequity. She knows struggle, and she knows triumph.

The Pembroke, Massachusetts native grew up just 30 minutes south of Boston, and it was lucky she did. Much of Johnson’s childhood was spent at Boston Children’s Hospital (ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report), receiving treatment for cystic fibrosis. Her mom was a single parent to her two daughters, but she was also a nurse. A nurse in an underserved area who knew how to advocate for and connect people with resources.

Determined to make a fresh start, Johnson applied to large, southeastern schools when deciding where to go to college. Admission to the Capstone Scholars program, a scholarship, and good campus vibes put USC at the top of the list, and she enrolled as a double major in global studies and women's and gender studies.

With her own chronic condition, her mom’s profession, and a sister heading for medical school, Johnson always had an interest in health. A women’s health class during her sophomore year illuminated the disparities that exist not only in other countries but right here in South Carolina.

I am frustrated, and I hope to never lose that frustration because anger is powerful if you can hone it into a tool for change. Those of us who have access to innovation, medication and care that half the world doesn’t have need to raise the voices of others so they are heard.

Samantha Johnson

Johnson decided to marry her interests in international systems and policies with health and applied to the Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Leadership, Education, and Advancement in Undergraduate Pathways (LEAP) Program. MCH LEAP provides interdisciplinary training for students from underserved or racially and ethnically under-represented backgrounds. There, she found mentors in health promotion, education, and behavior adjunct associate professor Deborah Billings and exercise science associate professor and associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion Toni Torres-McGehee.

“Dr. Billings' commitment to health care quality and equity while ‘wearing many hats,’ from being a wonderful professor to founder of an international non-profit striving for community-centered MCH care practices, has opened my eyes to possibilities I now strive for in my personal and professional career in global health,” Johnson says. “I am profoundly thankful for Dr. Torress-McGehee’s flexible mentoring, support and letter of recommendation through my unconventional study abroad program while staying in the LEAP program.”

As someone with a disability, Johnson had experienced the personal challenges of managing an illness. The MCH LEAP program helped her see the larger systems, structures and policies that restrain access and quality of health care for entire populations.

Johnson liked how the program brought underrepresented students with similar interests together into a community of people trying to make a difference. Its speakers – individuals who conducted research or led nonprofit organizations – inspired Johnson to see herself in a similar career path.

In pursuit of that path, Johnson began looking at study abroad programs that would build on a summer term she had spent at Sciences Po in France. While learning French and living in international housing on the outskirts of Paris, Johnson met her six closest friends – all from different countries.

“This experience changed my outlook, and I knew that international settings were the path forward for collaboration and understanding for me,” she says.

For her spring semester abroad, Johnson chose the School for International Training’s health and community program, where she spent an intense 18 weeks split among India, Jordan and South Africa. Johnson formed close bonds with the 11 other students in her cohort, recruiting two of them to join her in conducting an MCH-related project for the LEAP program and working with others on a case study into social determinants of health and health policy.

Beyond the case study, Johnson saw these elements in action when – as always – she made periodic visits to medical providers to manage her cystic fibrosis. While meeting with a pulmonologist in Cape Town, the physician helped put South African health care inequities in perspective.

“It would be less expensive to perform a double lung transplant for a patient with cystic fibrosis than to obtain Trikafta,” he said of the revolutionary drug that costs $350K per year.

“There have been so many advancements to improve longevity and quality of life for people with cystic fibrosis, but many of them just don’t have access,” Johnson says. “I’ve struggled with this condition my whole life, but it is nothing compared to these systemic barriers to accessing care and medication. This experience and seeing the inequities firsthand during my program lit my fire. I knew then that this is what I want to do.”

Prompted by encouragement from USC’s National Fellowships and Scholars Programs, Johnson sat down with Billings when she returned to the U.S. They began discussing graduate programs and Johnson's goals. 

Though she applied to several international programs, Johnson decided to pursue a double-degree master's program in international affairs. Sciences Po's Master’s in International Affairs: International Governance and Diplomacy program not only offered a global health concentration, but it also provided an entire year of professional experience. It pairs nicely with the MSc in International Political Economy she'll earn from the London School. With support from her mentor as well numerous other USC faculty members (she wrote 23 thank you notes!), Johnson secured a Fulbright U.S. Student Program Grant.

“Dr. Billings’ mentorship has been an integral part of my application process for my Fulbright Scholarship and master's program,” she says. “I cannot express my gratitude for all the work she put in, revising many essay drafts.”

Johnson’s experiences growing up with a serious chronic condition and her opportunities at USC have fueled her passion for making change in the world. She will take those next steps this summer after graduating in May.

“I am frustrated, and I hope to never lose that frustration because anger is powerful if you can hone it into a tool for change,” she says. “Those of us who have access to innovation, medication and care that half the world doesn’t have need to raise the voices of others so they are heard.” 

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