Jenna Chami is a first-year student in the Masters in International and Regional Studies (MIRS), specializing in Middle Eastern & North African Studies (MENAS). She is also pursuing a Master in Public Health (MPH) Degree in Health Behavior & Health Education (HBHE). Learn more about Jenna, her goals, and her experience starting two Master’s programs during a pandemic. The interview has been slightly edited.

How did your undergraduate studies lead to your current course of study?

I received my BS in Public Health with a minor in Arab and Muslim American Studies (AMAS) at U-M. This combination of fields was driven by a desire to see the bigger picture behind the disproportionately higher health disparities faced by certain populations. Public Health exposed me to the social determinants of health, critical thinking, intervention planning, and becoming an agent of change. I coupled this with my longing to learn about the Arab American community. I combined AMAS with my Public Health degree to assess the experience of Arab Americans as it relates to immigration, racism, and Islamophobia, and public health issues troubling that community. Inspired by my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to become a Public Health practitioner who would address the concerns of marginalized communities like Arab Americans.

Why are you pursuing Master’s Degrees from CMENAS and SPH?

I am interested in global and immigration health. In my Public Health education as an undergraduate student, I learned about a multitude of groups and the public health implications across different regions. However, I recognized Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) people were seldom mentioned. As a Lebanese American, I found the limited representation frustrating. Understanding the health implications of the MENA region and its people entails knowledge of their culture and history. Since MENA people are misclassified as white in the United States, research and data on their health implications are scarce. A combination of an MPH and an MA will provide context into the history, social, and political perspective in the MENA region, especially as it pertains to refugees and their status.

How has starting your programs during COVID been like?

It has been interesting to say the least! At times, it can be exhausting staring at a computer all day. It is also hard to build that connection with students and professors. However, in both of my cohorts we have group chats and communicate as much as we can. I have met many people virtually, and it feels so weird to not have met them in person before. I have made many new friends and am excited to collaborate with them in the future!

How do you manage any negative feelings during these difficult times and remain focused on your academic work and goals?

It can be difficult to manage everything. In order to give myself breathers, I turn off my social media because that can become too stressful and overwhelming. I give myself breaks to draw or talk to my friends and family as much as possible via Facetime; it is really important to keep that connection. Staying focused can be challenging, especially when my academic routine becomes repetitive. I try to stay organized and prioritize my tasks so they do not become super daunting. It helps to remind myself why I am pursuing my Masters’ and what my future goals are.

What are your post-graduation plans?

In the future, I know my career trajectory will be multifaceted. I want to work with Syrian and Iraqi refugees by engaging in research that focuses on developing and implementing intervention efforts on immigration and refugee status for those coming to the United States, specifically Michigan. I hope to study the factors that led to these people’ refugeehood, their journey to and their experiences in the US. I want to address these factors that contribute to their lack of access to care and poor health outcomes. I also want to look at the state of refugees in the Middle East, specifically in Lebanon, to address the living conditions of Syrian and Palestinians refugees. I plan to continue my education after my Masters’ to get a PhD. My dream job would focus on all of these factors, potentially in the World Health Organization, the United Nations, or academia.