Perspectives Gained From Wellesley Experiences Led Connie Chao ’21 to Apply for Watson Fellowship

A portrait of senior Connie Chao
Author  Carine Tarazi ’03
Published on 

Like many graduating seniors, Connie Chao ’21 has gotten used to feeling that her future is uncertain. As a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship recipient, her plans for 2022 include travel to Brazil, Liberia, China, the Philippines, and Australia to explore the roles and experiences of community health workers—assuming that Covid-19 is contained enough in those countries to ensure relative safety for everyone. If that’s not the case, it won’t be the first time Chao has needed to rethink her next step.

Before college, her plan was straightforward: “Graduate from Wellesley, go straight into medical school, and become a doctor.” But, she said, when she took her first sociology class, it “completely altered my entire trajectory!” Thanks to SOC 108: Thinking Global: An Introduction to Sociology, Chao majored in sociology with a minor in health and society. “It’s a fascinating combination, and very applicable when trying to situate individual experiences within the larger social and historical context,” she said. “I think that’s what really drew me into the major, into thinking about public health and how we look at health care outside of a biomedical lens by considering social and structural determinants of health. This is really important, especially now with the Covid-19 pandemic.”

In the summer of 2019, she interned with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, examining community health equity through a nonprofit organization. “The nonprofit, Equal Hope, seeks to eliminate health disparities through the lens of breast cancer and addresses women’s health holistically. I had the opportunity to work with their research and outreach teams to address these inequities,” Chao said. Through conversations with her mentor at Rush, Dr. David Ansell, she began wondering how public health could be advanced at the community level.

That fall, Chao traveled to Durban, South Africa to participate in a program with the School for International Training. Although she loves the classroom experience Wellesley provides, she was interested in the field-based component that SIT offered. “It was a wonderful new experience to visit community health care centers and NGOs. I was able to speak with community health workers who provide appropriate and equitable care as trusted members of their community,” she said. “That really shaped my understanding of working at a community level in terms of asking: Where does the power lie in doing community-based work, and what makes this work effective? What does community health look like outside of the United States and what is the social policy context?”

Chao returned to Wellesley for Wintersession 2020, where she was a fellow at the Albright Institute, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary. Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 herself was the distinguished visiting professor. The fellows were tasked with revisiting the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing; Chao’s group studied the effects of Boko Haram and the small arms trade on women and girls. “The Albright Institute significantly expanded my understanding of interdisciplinary approaches to global issues during the month-long Wintersession,” she said. The combination of her internship, semester abroad, and Albright Fellowship motivated her to apply for the Watson, and she also credits Smitha Radhakrishnan, professor of sociology at Wellesley, who taught that first sociology course and encouraged her to go abroad: “Professor Radhakrishnan’s classes and advising have been so formative and integral to my time at Wellesley and in developing a critical perspective. She has consistently encouraged me to explore new ideas and experiences inside and outside of the classroom.”

There would seem to be no better time for Chao to explore how community health workers connect individuals in their community to larger health systems and resources in various parts of the world. Now that the whole world is ensnared by the Covid-19 pandemic, she explained, “the situational context that shapes the health systems in each of these countries is still present, while the existing and reimagined forms of health care are unique to each community.” Chao expects to engage with community health differently in each country, but much of her project depends on her ability to work alongside and build trust with each community to understand the benefits and limitations of community-based healthcare.

The exact start date for her Watson year is still uncertain, but when the time comes, Chao looks forward to drawing on the perspectives from her Wellesley experiences to recognize how we might advance health justice at the community level.