Q&A: Master of Public Health student Bikere Ikoba on finding a home in public health

Published on May 4, 2021

master of public health graduate student Bikere IkobaBikere Ikoba will graduate from the University of Iowa with a Master of Public Health degree in May 2021. She studies community and behavioral health. Find out more about her research, activities, and why public health was the right choice for her.

What is your degree/program?

The University of Iowa’s Master of Public Health in Community and Behavioral Health program.

Where is your home town?

Bettendorf, Iowa.

What motivated you to pursue a degree in public health?

For me, the decision to pursue a degree in public health followed and accompanied a long-term process of understanding the world around me and my place in it. Though I could speak at length about the years-long process of finding my way to public health, in short, I sought to enter a field where I could employ my faith-rooted desire to work alongside community members in a movement towards global restorative justice with the tangible skills to do so. For me, this intersection has found its home in public health at large and community health particularly.

What did you find most valuable about your University of Iowa public health education? 

Throughout my time in the Master of Public Health program, I have most found valuable the community I have found in our student cohort and the professors who have supported my learning and growth. I have also valued the strong toolkit of skills and theoretical frameworks gained throughout this program as I work alongside community members in combating systemic injustice and preventable health inequities, particularly in those fields near my heart — namely immigrant/refugee health, maternal/child health, and racial disparities at large.

What have your experiences working in public health so far meant to you?

So far, working in public health has meant finding an “academic home” of sorts. For me, these experiences have meant bringing my growing community-centered research skills into spaces of healing in communities. As I continue to process where I “fit” into this community healing process, I often found myself with more questions than answers! Even so, inhabiting these spaces has been a beautiful, humbling, and validating process nonetheless.

Have you been able to work with a faculty member or center on research?

Yes! My research experiences with the College of Public Health have included working as a Graduate Research Assistant with various staff members in the Native Center for Behavioral Health and with Dr. Rima Afifi, Dr. William Story, and Dr. Amy Weismann on the Problem Management Plus (PM+) program.

Specifically highlighting refugees who have recently resettled in Iowa, the PM+ program exists as a community-based mental health intervention. In this program, my experiences have covered a range of research tasks such as observing training sessions, conducting interviews with folks who participated in the program, and growing in my qualitative data analysis skills. Right now, my role primarily involves supporting PM+ as the program partners with different resettlement agencies and ethnicity-based community organizations to expand the program throughout the rest of the state of Iowa.

What other activities were you involved in at Iowa?

While at Iowa, I was also involved in various activities and student organizations, such as assisting with a survey of available literature regarding interventions among immigrants residing in the Midwest. I also got involved in student life by serving as a co-chair in our department’s Community and Behavioral Health Student Association (or CBHSA) and helping plan opportunities to connect and engage with international students through Bridges, a cross-cultural student ministry at the University of Iowa.

What are your plans after graduation?

Right now, I plan to continue searching for jobs in which I can leverage my skills gained in this degree program to support the powerful work already being done in and by members of various communities.

What advice do you have for students thinking about pursuing a degree in public health?

Aside from “go for it!”, I would recommend for students considering degrees in public health to seek out trusted, supportive mentors who work both within and outside public health spaces! It could be really helpful to ask these mentors about their roles in the public health field and why they do what they do. Additionally, I recommend taking time to reflect upon one’s own motivations for entering into the public health space, as remembering my original heart in entering this program really helped me in those moments of burnout during the program.

Lastly, I recommend asking questions such as, “Am I comfortable with ‘gray’ areas, or do I need black-and-white answers to hard, challenging questions? How do I respond when my understanding of the world, health, or systems shifts with new information? Am I comfortable entering into a field that is often politicized? What do I hope to accomplish in the world, and how might public health fit into that?” As “sticky” as public health can feel at times, I believe public health also provides beautiful space to learn how to engage in humility and gain valuable skills to advocate for, and stand in solidarity with, ourselves and others at the community level. Though engaging in the public health space may feel like a rollercoaster ride at times, I believe this process — humbling as it may be — is so worthwhile.