Student’s inspiration leads to WHO internship


Published: April 8, 2016

Courtney Searles with Director-General of WHO

SPH student Courtney Searles with Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO

UNTHSC student Courtney Searles decided to study public health because of her dad.

Diagnosed with cancer at age 24, her father had grown up close to a chemical plant, where environmental factors may have contributed to his illness.

Her father lost his battle with the disease at 30, inspiring Courtney toward a career where she could help find solutions for better health and a safer world environment.

A first-year Health Management and Policy MPH student, she hopes to combine her public health focus with a future medical degree.Courtney_Searles_WHO2

It was likely that Courtney’s story touched top management at the World Health Organization (WHO) when she was selected as one of four students from among thousands of international candidates for a six-week internship at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

“It seemed like such a longshot when I applied,” she said. “The forms advised not to call or contact WHO in follow up … that if you didn’t hear back, it meant you weren’t selected and that was it. I thought, no way will I get this, but I still wanted to try. So I sent off my personal essay and pretty much forgot about it.”

“The next thing you know,” she said, “I was boarding an airplane for a life-changing experience. It feels like such a dream; I blinked and then I was back home.”

Courtney’s job involved analyzing data collected over 14 months following the 2014 Ebola outbreak, to evaluate results of international interventions to the crisis. This report, soon to be published by WHO, has identified 16 African countries at highest risk for spread of the disease.

“Experiences like this, in the international sense, are so important. Diseases strike every area of the world, and it was empowering to watch countries come together to work on solutions and to learn about other cultures and norms through the process,” she said. “I was able to learn the work, at a global level, that goes into public health emergencies when a pandemic like Ebola occurs.”

Courtney’s goal is to one day work full-time for WHO, either at headquarters or deployed anywhere around the world.

“This internship took me outside my comfort zone and taught me that no dream is impossible or too big. You never know until you try, and I hope to be part of that international family again sometime in the future,” she said.