Simon Yohannes (MMPH '17) feels indelibly connected to the immigrant experience—so much so that he identifies more with his parents’ and grandparents’ home country of Eritrea than he does with his own birthplace, Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, the Pitt School of Medicine third-year and now Multidisciplinary Master of Public Health (MMPH) student and Dean’s Scholar plans to devote his career to working with immigrants and refugees recovering from trauma -- much like his family members, who escaped an oppressive regime in Ethiopia.
A tiny country on the Horn of Africa, Eritrea fought a 30-year war with neighboring Ethiopia for independence, which it earned with the help of rebel fighters in 1993. It was during this conflict that Yohannes’ own mother was imprisoned by Ethiopia’s Communist regime; to this day, she refuses to talk about what happened.
Yohannes says he sees similarities between his mother’s experience and those of immigrants and refugees now entering the United States—especially the elderly and those suffering from depression related to culture shock. He hopes to work with these communities to break the stigma of seeking psychiatric help, as well as to take advantage of the access he has in order to improve public health for these populations.
“I chose public health because of my interest in psychiatry—particularly in immigrant and refugee populations,” he says. “I feel as though mental health is a topic that gets brushed under the rug in many immigrant communities. Like my family members and friends who were involved in war; maybe there was something going on, but no one wanted to talk about it. They would have benefited from talking about it.”
Yohannes entered the School of Medicine after graduating from Vanderbilt University with a degree in biomedical engineering. He decided to apply to the MMPH program between his second and third years of medical school, in part because he believes the MMPH will open doors to new connections and insights that will enable him to advocate for the mental health of refugees and immigrants as a clinician. The depth of knowledge and spirit of acceptance he observed among the Pitt Public Health faculty also factored into his decision.
“Dr. [David] Finegold was a tremendous inspiration for me when I was still brainstorming whether or not I wanted to pursue an MPH,” he says. “Talking with her convinced me that my ideas would be appreciated here. It felt nice to be wanted and for my dreams to be appreciated.”
In addition to his juggling his course work, research, and clinical responsibilities, Yohannes has made time to help local young people realize their own dreams. He was one of 21 Pittsburgh-area graduate students chosen in 2015–16 for a highly competitive Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, an experiential learning program that develops leaders in service to address the health and human service needs of disadvantaged citizens in southwest Pennsylvania and the region.
Together with Tara Devezin of the Pitt Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, Yohannes ran a year-long program at a Hill District community center in which adolescent boys and girls learned how to pursue their career goals; cook healthy and affordable meals; and understand social and environmental justice issues through classes, field trips, and projects.