BABE #184: WHITNEY HILL, Peace Corps Response Volunteer
Whitney is a Peace Corps Response volunteer currently located in Ukraine, where she’s working towards assessing barriers in HIV testing and care amongst key populations in the region. Her past and present accolades are inspiring to say the least, and have surely helped (and will continue to help) many children, teens and adults around the globe. We’re thankful for Whitney and the many babes like her who selflessly hustle in pursuit of a better, safer world for us all.
Babe you admire and why?
I come from an amazing family of women whom I admire the most. They are incredibly hard workers with huge goals they always achieve; they are leaders in their businesses, jobs and communities, and they are extremely generous and kind. I feel so lucky to have been raised with such strong examples of the kind of woman I want to be, and to have their unending support each time I pursue a new goal or adventure.
How do you spend your free time?
At the moment, I spend my free time studying Russian, reading David Sedaris’s new book, cooking something delicious or scrolling through home decor accounts on Instagram.
Favorite app, website or blog?
It’s not an exciting one, but I love Habit Bull and use it every day! I’m a sucker for checking things off a list.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
A great medium-rare steak, creamy mac and cheese and a classic house salad.
What is something you want to learn or master?
I really want to master a second language. I [can speak] basic to intermediate levels of a few languages, but fluency only in English. I really admire people who are fully bilingual, (or trilingual!). It’s such a useful and important skill to have.
Three words to describe yourself?
Analytical, driven, humorous.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Ellen DeGeneres. She is the embodiment of all that is good in the world! Kind, hilarious, generous and fierce.
Tell us about your hustle. What does your typical workday look like?
As a Peace Corps Response volunteer, my role is to help develop the capacity of the HIV organization I work with, and offer my skills and expertise to help them successfully carry out their mission in whatever way I can. That can involve facilitating trainings, helping with events, implementing a research project to help prioritize programming, etc. My main project at the moment is designing a needs assessment to explore barriers to HIV testing and care amongst key populations (women who do commercial sex work, men who have sex with men, and people who inject drugs) in the region, in order to inform and support future advocacy and strategic fundraising efforts. When I’m not working on that, I’m often helping the other Peace Corps volunteers at my site with their various projects and events.
Can you tell us about the advocacy work you’ve done with SEED Madagascar?
When I was working at UNT Health Science Center (UNTHSC), I was fortunate to be involved in some wonderful and impactful public health work. However, my greatest passion is sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), especially for women and girls who are economically or socially disadvantaged. I’ve always wanted to do this work within a global context, so when I saw the opportunity with SEED Madagascar, I knew I had to apply. With SEED, I worked on an education project that delivered SRHR lessons in middle and high schools in two regions of Southeast Madagascar. After the pilot phase of this project, we learned that the Ministry of Education had developed their own sexual health curriculum for schools, which was not rights-based. After reviewing the Ministry’s curriculum, I wrote an advocacy statement that included recommendations for changes to this curriculum based on international best practices. The statement was used by both SEED Madagascar and UNFPA to advocate for changes to the curriculum. Ultimately, a formal partnership was formed between SEED and the Ministry of Education, through which I helped lead the collaborative development of a comprehensive, rights-based sexual health curriculum to be implemented in high schools across Madagascar. This curriculum includes lessons topics such as consent, gender equality, sexual assault and child marriage.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when making the transition into global health?
The biggest challenge I faced when I made this transition was the steep learning curve I had to go through at work and in my personal life simultaneously. Starting a new job is always a bit stressful, and when you add on learning a new culture, trying to express yourself in a new language and starting a life in a new country all at once, it can feel quite overwhelming.
Since transitioning to work in global health, have you noticed any lifestyle changes in yourself?
The biggest changes I’ve noticed in myself are being more aware of my needs and being much better at voicing them. I’m a person who needs a good amount of time to myself to recharge my batteries, and I used to feel awkward about asking for that time. Now when I feel myself reaching my limit, I have no problem declining or rescheduling social plans and being honest about why. It ultimately allows me to be the best version of myself, and I’ve found it actually strengthens my relationships.
What advice do you have for fellow babes looking to make a big career shift?
My biggest advice would be to know what values are the most important to you and use them as guide for making decisions. They will serve as your anchor and reminder for why you wanted the change as you go through the risk-taking involved in a big career shift. Remember that life is short and you were made for great things, so if what you’re doing is not fulfilling to you, if it doesn’t have meaning, then don’t feel bad about making moves to get into something that does!
How have your past academic and professional experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
My education and work experience at UNTHSC taught me to think critically about public health and the impact my work has on the populations I aim to serve. My professors and colleagues consistently challenged and inspired me in the way they blended research and compassion in the implementation of the various projects I worked on with them, and acted as great examples of the importance of deeply examining the need as well as the intended and unintended consequences of potential programs. Additionally, my mentors and supervisors set high expectations for me, and really guided me in further developing my management, writing and leadership skills.
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
My work in Madagascar has absolutely been my biggest career milestone. Being able to do advocacy for sexual and reproductive health and rights at a national level and succeed in increasing access to vital education for young people was a huge step forward in my career and an enormous personal achievement. Moreover, the entire process of relocating to Madagascar to work for a cause I am so passionate about, becoming close with my incredible Malagasy colleagues and gaining the confidence to be bold in my advocacy approach for this project was such a unique and amazing period of professional and personal development.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
This is an interesting question. As I reflect on my career so far, in some roles I have felt a daily struggle to be seen as an equal because of my gender, and in some roles gender has seemed almost completely irrelevant. I think overall, being a woman has helped me professionally, because being aware that I may not be taken as seriously as my male counterparts has always motivated me to prove myself through solid preparation and work ethic. One area I still struggle in is being bold with my viewpoint before I am completely comfortable in a role. In my experience, men are more likely to voice an opinion or throw out a new idea without the same hesitation that women often feel in the workplace, and I am working on developing this same confidence.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
Based on the messages I receive from friends at home, I think my work abroad often looks like my days are made up mostly of fun adventures, with a little work thrown in occasionally. While there are definitely more fun adventures working abroad than at home, the ratio is not quite what it seems on social media! The reality is I’ve done some of the hardest work of my career abroad, and I’m still living the eight-to-five office life. (However, the weekend trips and the lunch breaks at the beach are definitely a huge perk to this line of work.)
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
The women who lead organizations like Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, The White Ribbon Alliance, Ipas, and the Guttmacher Institute.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
For women who are trying to break into global health, my biggest piece of advice would be to really develop your expertise. Invest the time and effort necessary to hone your skills so that you provide something specific to organizations. Also, spend purposeful time abroad. Take advantage of opportunities to study, intern or volunteer in another country, and use this time to explore your interests and strengthen your language skills.
What is your philosophy on work-life balance?
When things are busy at work and there’s a deadline to be met, I happily work extremely long days and weekends—whatever it takes to get everything done. To counter this, when things are slower, I really protect my personal time. I take a lunch break, leave the office at a reasonable time, and keep work emails to a minimum on weekends. Setting these boundaries helps me to know that when things ramp up, I am mentally and physically rested enough to handle the long hours and still produce quality work under pressure.
What helps you wind down and manage stress?
A long walk outside or a good venting session with a friend over dinner.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
“Discipline is the cornerstone of freedom, not the opposite.” —Marie-Agnes Gillot
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