With an empathetic spirit and two master's degrees, Kokeb Okbamichael is excited to make an impact in public health

Her immigrant roots and personal experiences have made her passionate about creating a healthier world

Kokeb Okbamichael, MPH, receives a graduation gift from Jack Tsai, PhD, professor and regional dean in San Antonio.
Kokeb Okbamichael, MPH, receives a graduation gift from Jack Tsai, PhD, professor and regional dean in San Antonio.
Kokeb Okbamichael at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health commencement ceremony in Houston on May 18.
Kokeb Okbamichael at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health commencement ceremony in Houston on May 18.

For the past two and a half years, Kokeb Okbamichael has embraced her role as a student, thrown herself into her master’s of public health coursework, been the life of the party at student association events, and worked as a graduate assistant for the student affairs office, greeting every visitor with a bright smile and warm welcome.

On May 18, she walked across the stage with over 250 other graduates at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health’s commencement ceremony in Houston, celebrating the milestone of earning two master’s degrees simultaneously and closing this chapter of education and student life for now.

Like so many other public health students, Okbamichael was sure she wanted to be a medical doctor when she grew up until she discovered public health.

A first-generation daughter of immigrants, Okbamichael said she saw how her parents were constantly working to make a better life for their kids in their tight-knit Houston neighborhood, providing them with privileges and opportunities that the rest of their extended family back in Eritrea could only dream about.

Okbamichael said she knew that by U.S. standards, her family was not wealthy, and it was important to her that she didn’t waste the opportunities her parents had given her to pursue her education.

Not long into her college career, Okbamichael’s deep interest in understanding human behavior led her to change her major from pre-med to psychology during her undergraduate years at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).

But when she graduated with her bachelor’s, Okbamichael had still not yet decided which direction to take with her next degree.

“I actually applied for a clinical mental health counseling program at UTSA, and I got in,” she said. “But I dropped it right before [it started] because I told myself that this is not the path that I can make the most impact in. I wanted a macro-level impact when I came into the healthcare realm.”

After graduating and talking with many other public health graduates, Okbamichael pursued a master’s in public health at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio. Since one master’s degree was not nearly enough of a challenge, Okbamichael decided to broaden her education and career choices even further by choosing a dual degree program where she could earn her MBA from UTSA while also earning her MPH.

She said she ultimately chose public health not only for the opportunity to address broader community health issues but also because it appeals to her personality.

“It's an empathetic field,” she said. “I feel as though everyone I've met in public health, especially students, they are so passionate and keen on trying to support and help and gather evidence on how best to prevent diseases and also promote health education.”

Okbamichael said her own background and experience in health disparities have driven her interest in public health and pushes her to find answers and solutions.

“I am from a low-income district in Houston,” she said. “I felt a little bit more privileged than some people, thanks to my parents, but I went to school with individuals that were not the same status economically, and seeing the adversity they faced made me really curious to understand why money is the difference between my wellness and theirs.”

Getting an MPH has also opened Okbamichael’s eyes to the many facets of the public health field.

“When I started this degree, I didn't realize how hands-on it is,” she said. “I thought that we were just doing the research, just getting the numbers. And we're doing statistics, but we're also actually going out and talking to people, screening them in person.”

Okbamichael bonded with the staff, faculty and students during her time at the school’s San Antonio location, and said she saw firsthand how everyone took care of each other during difficult moments. She said after one particularly hard day, other staff members welcomed Okbamichael to stay at their home so that she wouldn’t have to be alone in her apartment.

“That was the first time that I didn't really feel alone in this city,” Okbamichael said. “We were just there for each other, and I felt a sense of community.”

As for her own future plans, for now, she said she’ll be moving back home to Houston to live with her family during her job search. She hasn’t decided yet which type of health job would be the best fit for her, but with three degrees under her belt, ranging from psychology to business, she’s keeping an open mind.

“I want to work in different healthcare communities,” she said. “Whether that is operations or development, finance, patient care, or many other different realms.”

She believes incoming MPH students can get the most out of the program by remaining open-minded and staying focused on what really matters.

“That will help you understand how public health can impact your environment,” Okbamichael said. “Because that’s what we’re getting into public health for: better understanding the behavior of our environment and how we can influence it to heal. And that’s what we want, right? We want the world to heal itself.”


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