The COVID-19 Pandemic Inspires Student to Pursue a Public Health Career

A portrait of Irene Kyei

Like many who end up in the public health field, Irene Kyei initially wanted to practice medicine. Or at least, it seemed like the best possible option. She explains, “Growing up in an African home, my parents told me that I had to become a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, or a failure. The latter wasn’t really a choice, so I decided to become a doctor.”

Kyei was born in Asante-Akim Agogo, a small town in Ghana, West Africa. But during her childhood she moved around constantly, staying in different communities and gaining exposure to diverse cultures. She feels that this upbringing prepared her well for moving to the United States and ultimately to Albany.

“Though every community was different, they had one thing in common, and that is their sense of belonging,” she says, adding that, “at a young age I learned that a home is not just a house, it’s really about the people around you. I’ve always been welcomed into every group and space I find myself in, not just socially, but also in my academic endeavors.”

A motivated and eager student, Kyei began to pursue her goal of becoming a physician as soon as she arrived in the United States, where she soon completed high school and earned an Associate’s degree from CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. But after some on the job experience as a medical assistant, Kyei began to feel unsatisfied with her career trajectory.

“I got to experience first-hand patient care in a clinical setting. It made me realize that I didn’t want to be a doctor who only has an impact on one individual at a time. I wanted to do more than that. I wanted my impact to reach a lot of people.”

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Reflecting on those early months of 2020, Kyei says, “It was so chaotic at that time. Everything had just shut down and my classes were suddenly all online. I quickly realized how important public health professionals were in controlling the spread of the disease and keeping the public informed.”

And then Kyei got news that would have terrified anyone in March of 2020: she had tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, she was able to make a full recovery, but the experience left her with a new perspective.

“The doctors, nurses, and public health workers that I was in contact with during my illness were always calm, kind, and professional. Afterward I just wanted to do something to pay it forward,” she says. She enrolled at UAlbany for her bachelor's degree and chose public health as her major, and when the opportunity to join the UAlbany COVID-19 Student Support Team arose, she jumped on it.

“Being a part of that team served as my gateway to the work of public health. It enabled me to demonstrate my communication, problem solving, and critical thinking skills while also giving back to the community.”

When that internship ended in January of 2022, Kyei secured a new position as a student assistant for the New York State Department of Health Newborn Screening Program. Of her second internship experience, Kyei says, “I feel like I’ve been able to contribute a lot in my current role. I’ve been able to apply the things I’ve learned from my previous internship and my coursework while learning new skills like data analysis.”

Meanwhile, Kyei isn’t just a student—she’s also recently become both a homeowner and a landlord: “in addition to my job and school, I have the responsibility of managing my property and tenants. I also commute for about an hour and half to the university by bus every school day. Although these are very challenging responsibilities, they don’t deter me from accomplishing my goals of pursuing my education and becoming a resourceful person.”

So where will Kyei’s journey take her next? “I’d like to pursue a Master’s degree in epidemiology or another field that allows me to focus on developing my research skills,” Kyei says. “I want to eventually work as a data analyst or something similar.” A self-described adventurer, Kyei is sure to make waves wherever her public health journey leads.