Getting to know the people behind the data

Ariel Willingham

Graduate student Ariel Willingham interns with the American Cancer Society, working to prevent health disparities. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services

“I really like data,” says Ariel Willingham, a School of Public Health graduate student in epidemiology.

“I love the investigation side of working with numbers.”

And as an intern with the American Cancer society, “I’ve had the opportunity to interact with patients,” she said. “You hear testimonials and you understand the larger importance of your work. Each variable, each number is a real person.”

Willingham is working on the cancer society’s Illinois Colorectal Cancer Screening Initiative.

“We’re looking at health disparities and ways of preventing them,” she said.

The project targets an uninsured and underserved population, enrolling people from age 50 to 74 to receive free screenings and health education.

“What’s really great about this program is, if it does find cancer the doctors will treat them free of charge,” Willingham said.

To reach people, “you just have to be creative,” she said, visiting churches, community centers and barber shops, for example.

“It’s a great experience working with the cancer society, getting to know the people there,” she said.

Willingham is a founding member and treasurer of a new campus group, the Mental Health and Disability Alliance.

With about 50 members among undergraduate and grad students, faculty and staff, the group’s mission is to cultivate collaborations between the university and community to reduce barriers surrounding mental health and disability.

She is also co-chair of the Public Health Student Association’s service committee, which last year held a food drive and sponsored a panel discussion for undergraduates on the grad school application process and careers in public health.

This year, the two groups are sponsoring a professional clothing drive “to help the homeless get jobs,” she said.

Willingham is a member of Minority Students for Advancement of Public Health. Recently she attended its mixer for Black History Month.

“What we noticed is there’s not enough networking and collaborations among minority organizations on campus,” she said.

Many at the event were, like Willingham, pursuing master’s degrees.

“It was a really great opportunity for students to learn about the history of leaders in the health field and to network with professionals,” she said.

She chairs the student subcommittee of the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Blacks.

“The main legacy I’d like to leave here is to give back to students who may not know how to navigate,” she said.

“The best thing that happened to me at UIC was getting involved, actually knowing about resources on campus and the people who could help me get involved with organizations.”

Willingham came to Chicago from Southern California, where she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, San Diego.

“I had plenty of opportunities to pursue a master’s in California,” she said. “But when I reached out to the dean and professors here, it felt like home from the beginning.”

She frequently takes in plays and performances — like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which offers, she noted, “steeply discounted student tickets.”

She also saw “The Bluest Eye” at the UIC Theatre and “Generations,” a dance production at the Harris Theater.

When it’s warmer out, Willingham enjoys blues and jazz festivals.

“One of my favorite things to do is to find different coffee shops to study at with classmates,” she said.

“It’s a nice way to explore the city. Our recent finds include Filter Café in Wicker Park and Intelligentsia in the Loop.”

She lives in Wicker Park with two roommates who are also studying epidemiology.

“When life gets tough, we turn on music and have dance parties.”

After she graduates in May, “hopefully I will find a position doing health disparity research,” she said. “After a year or two I may pursue my Ph.D.”

She plans to return to California.

“I love Chicago but I wish it had California’s weather,” Willingham said. “I had never seen snow before I came here.”

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