Skip to main content

Student earns first ASU global health degree

December 16, 2009

What began as a desire to change the world for the better has resulted in a pioneering accomplishment by 21-year-old Mackenzie Cotlow. On Dec. 18, Cotlow will receive the first bachelor’s degree in global health awarded by Arizona State University.

Launched in 2008 by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the groundbreaking global health program integrates the social and life sciences as it investigates major health challenges facing the world. Unlike many health programs, it provides students with a broad skill base and an understanding of the wide-ranging dynamics – including cultural, historical, biological and socioeconomic complexities – that create these global challenges.

The transdisciplinarity of the program was a draw for Cotlow, who welcomed the idea of exploring many fields within the context of health. Another lure was the idea of pursuing studies focused on effecting meaningful change for people in low-resource settings.

“I have always wanted to make a difference, but I never really knew how to go about that, or exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” Cotlow said. “I started at ASU as a biology major, but I just didn’t feel the connection I needed. Then I heard about the global health program, and it sounded interesting because I’ve always been a global thinker, so I switched majors."

After taking a couple of classes, she realized the program was perfect for her. Cotlow went on to study with a diverse group of faculty – including medical anthropologist Alexandra Brewis, bioarchaeologist Rachel Scott, cultural anthropologist Amber Wutich and environmental anthropologist Colleen O’Brien – equipping her with what she deems a valuable, layered foundation for understanding health issues from a variety of perspectives.

“The classes I took made me think and see the world in a new and beneficial way,” Cotlow said.

Cotlow completed the study abroad program required for the degree through a summer session in New Zealand and Fiji, which she said was “an incredible experience, and the best decision I ever made.” She credits the on-site experiential learning with opening her eyes to the realities of global health issues and also her own potential to impact them. The program involved hands-on opportunities to help find sustainable health and environmental solutions in indigenous communities, as well as engaging in everyday activities during a stay with a farming family and lending a hand with the needs of local villages.

Noting that her degree program has afforded her many options – such as career opportunities in teaching, research or health services in international agencies, departments of health, government agencies or NGOs, or priming her for specialized training in medicine – Cotlow is planning to forge a career path that combines her interests in disease science and social justice. First up, though, is the decision about whether to apply for graduate school at ASU – the public health program offered by the W. P. Carey School of Business – or working abroad for a year before resuming her studies.

Whatever she chooses, Cotlow seems destined to succeed. Her adviser, Baté Agbor-Baiyee, pegged her as an “up-and-coming star” based on her involvement and dedication, along with her outstanding curricular and extracurricular endeavors. Brewis agreed, saying “Mackenzie is an energetic and optimistic young scholar, who is thoughtful, has shown an incredible willingness to try new things and works very well with others. These are some of the qualities that will help her and other program graduates contribute to a dynamic and effective global health workforce."

In Fall 2011, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change will introduce a master’s in global health program, which will accept applicants in Fall 2010. The school is also seeking final approvals for a doctorate in global health.