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Fiona Weeks: Committed to Healthy Communities

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fiona Weeks, a former Tisch Scholar and current Massachusetts Tisch Summer Fellow, is a passionate active citizen devoted to immigrant communities and public health.

Tisch Schola alumna Fiona Weeks

Like so many other Tufts students, recent graduate Fiona Weeks, A14, was deeply committed to civic engagement before she set foot on campus. She founded a women’s rights group at her high school, where she was also a leader in multiple service organizations. She helped raise money to meet community needs as a member of the National Honor Society, and she explored a nascent interest in health issues by volunteering at a low-cost clinic.

As she began to look forward to college, Weeks wanted her development as a student to go hand in hand with her development as an active citizen. “When I visited Tufts I heard about the Tisch Scholars program, and it seemed like a good next step to take my work with communities to the next level,” she says.

During her first and second years at Tufts, her interests expanded to include immigration and immigrant rights. Her first project as a Tisch Scholar was at The Welcome Project, a Somerville organization that focuses on education and advocacy for local immigrant communities. Weeks worked with youth in that program, leading them through civic engagement modules that would help empower them to effect change.

“We gave them the tools to engage in issues that were relevant to their communities, and identify ways to influence what was going on in their communities,” she says. “Many of these kids were already acting as liaisons between non-English speakers and American institutions, and we wanted to give them the tools to continue being leaders.”

Formative International Research

Inspired by a summer experience teaching English in El Salvador, Weeks spent her junior year abroad in Chile. While there, she continued working with immigrant communities through an internship at Ciudadano Global (Global Citizen), a Chilean organization that serves local immigrant and refugee communities. Though she had planned to do a study on immigrant women in the United States, she saw an opportunity to embark on a similar project in Latin America: an assessment of Peruvian immigrants’ health care access in Chile. Given Chile’s rapidly growing immigrant population, she saw a pressing need for research on that topic.

“My philosophy is always that you shouldn’t just research to do research. Do it to generate knowledge that can actually be used to improve people’s lives,” says Weeks. “There was this huge gap in our knowledge about what was going on, and it was something that could potentially benefit the people living in Chile.”

She received support from several community organizations, including the Chilean Ministry of Health, but the study was a daunting, ambitious task that Weeks took on largely on her own.

“It was a very complex project for me. For one thing, it was in a country other than my own, so I had to learn all about Chilean law, their immigration system, their health system,” she says. “I was working with the Peruvian population, which is a community that I had basically no ties with and didn’t know anybody who had ties. That was one of the biggest challenges: figuring out how to access that community and do it in a way that wasn’t condescending. I really wanted to learn from them.”

Weeks drew on the knowledge and skills she had developed as a Tisch Scholar to effectively negotiate difficult power dynamics and connect with the Peruvian community in a respectful, conscientious fashion. The result was a successful study that laid bare many of the health barriers faced by that community; impediments that mirror those of other immigrant groups in this country and across the world.

“Peruvians are really arriving into a context that already has really limited capacity: the public health system is under-resourced and under-staffed,” says Weeks. “Those who access the system are kind of seen as taking away resources from the Chileans and that creates social tensions.”

Those tensions feed into discrimination that often relegates Peruvians in Chile to low-wage jobs, and to overcrowded, unsanitary, substandard housing that has an adverse effect on their health. Immigrants are also hindered by an antiquated legal framework that creates instability and opens up the door to employer abuse.

Weeks’ research in Chile became her senior honors thesis in the community health program. It also doubled as her senior Tisch Scholar project, as she made efforts to share her findings with organizations in Chile who may be able to build on her work and use it to improve health access and outcomes for Peruvians and other immigrants in the country. While she considers that her true reward, Weeks also found that her work in Chile reaffirmed her professional aspirations.

“I already knew I wanted to do public health, but the whole experience cemented for me that I really like public health research, and that I really enjoy working with communities,” she says.

Focusing on Local Communities

To that end, Weeks will now begin her graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, specifically in the Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health. “What I really want to do is applied research on how to improve health outcomes for marginalized communities,” she says. “Right now I’m interested in African American communities, who have the highest infant mortality rate in the country by a lot.”

While her experience abroad was formative and inspiring, Weeks is refreshingly candid about her desire to focus now on working with communities in the United States.

“I feel some sort of obligation to work in this country, because I feel like global health is kind of the ‘sexy’ thing to do in public health,” she says. “It’s cool, you get to travel, and you feel like you’re making a difference when you see all these kids who have nothing. But you don’t have to look very far to find people whose lives can be improved … there are communities here that can really benefit from the work I’m interested in doing.”

Weeks is already working locally this summer as a Tisch Summer Fellow at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, where she is once again doing important work with immigrant populations. Weeks is helping design a mixed-methods program evaluation to measure the effectiveness of the organization’s family-centered approach. Her enduring commitment to one of Tufts’ host communities, and her awareness of what she can contribute to people there and elsewhere is one of the enduring lessons she learned through Tisch College.

“I think that the Scholars program has been a huge part of my focus on community empowerment, being aware of my own social identity, and thinking about the communities around me. It has been a huge part of my current philosophy and direction.”