The University of Iowa

UI global health studies grad is improving health equity right here at home

December 18th, 2019
Jennie Wonderlin at UI graduation

Jennie Wonderlin, a Des Moines native, graduated in 2018 from the University of Iowa with  majors in anthropology and Spanish, and a certificate in global health.  Now a community healthcare worker at Primary Healthcare, Inc., Jennie gets to put into practice what she learned during her college career.

Her interest in learning about other cultures started when she was in high school.  She read Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, an assigned reading about one man’s quest to solve global health problems.  She also spent one month in China through a high school study abroad program. 

“I knew I wanted to travel and to learn about different types of cultures,” she says. “I decided on Iowa because I would be able to afford to study abroad.  I had a sister that graduated from Iowa and went to Jordan, and my parents had trust in the services and programs that UI Study Abroad provided.” 

She didn’t waste any time in planning her international experience.  She went to the Study Abroad office her first semester freshman year and ended up going to Perú the following fall where she studied Spanish and anthropology at the Pontífica Universidad Católica del Perú. 

She returned with even more enthusiasm for her chosen fields of study.  One of her mentors at the UI was Karmen Berger, global health studies program advisor.  Berger helped Wonderlin narrow her focus and to get an internship in the field of global health.

“Jennie completed a global health studies certificate project on the social determinants of health among Latino migrant workers in Iowa,” Berger says.  “This, along with her study abroad experience in Latin America, prepared her well for a career committed to improving health equity both locally and globally.  She is an outstanding example of the local/global connection which is at the heart of Global Health Studies at the University of Iowa.”

One of the opportunities Wonderlin had during college was to work at Proteus, a non-profit that works with migrant workers in the state of Iowa to provide healthcare services. 

“It was hard work,” Wonderlin recalls.  “I would go out to the field, set up mobile units, I would do blood pressure, height, weight, health education, health screening.  It was really an amazing experience.  And I knew this is what I wanted to do - go into the health field.”

In her current role as a community healthcare worker at Primary Healthcare, Inc. in Des Moines, Wonderlin provides patients, many of whom are Medicare and Medicaid patients, with information on exercise, nutrition, and stress reduction.  She also sets up programming to help patients address barriers to healthcare such as transportation, linguistic barriers, and getting access to food.  She works with community partners to make sure they get access to what they need.  Her Spanish skills are also used as she often provides translation.

A lot of her job is focused on relationship building which, according to Wonderlin, is the core component of her job.  Primary Healthcare, Inc. serves much of the refugee community in Iowa as well.  This is where the global health component comes in, and also where her study abroad and travels abroad have positively impacted her ability to work with the diverse group of people she encounters daily on the job.

Jennie Wonderlin in mountains in Peru

“The biggest thing I learned [from studying abroad] was being open to other cultures.  And also learning that you can never know everything about another culture,” says Wonderlin.  “I try to learn about a country or person as much as possible, meet them where they’re at.”

Wonderlin remembers her job as an outreach assistant in the Study Abroad office and how it helped her gain a lot of confidence. Because the job involved always talking to people about the study abroad process through presentations, it really sharpened her professional development skills.  “I give a lot of presentations now in my current job.  I would have been intimidated without any tangible formal speaking skills,” she says. 

When asked why she made the decision to stay in Iowa, Wonderlin said that there were a few factors that impacted her decision. While she did explore other options, she realized she had an opportunity to make a difference locally.  She knows her community, her surroundings, and there was so much that interested her in Des Moines.  She said her current job is unlike any other job she found outside the state of Iowa.

“Global health doesn’t need to be done outside the United States,” Wonderlin remarked. “There are global health initiatives going on right in our backyard in the state of Iowa.”

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