Time at U.Va. broadened horizon for graduate



Jennifer Oppong learned a lot during her four years at the University of Virginia, including how to listen to her heart and keep her mind open to change.

The 22-year-old first-generation American of Ghanaian parents is graduating Sunday with a bachelor’s degree in public policy/leadership with a minor in bio-ethics from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

That’s not what she thought she’d study when she entered the university four years ago, however.

Growing up, Oppong’s aunt often hinted that she should be a doctor. The idea of medicine, she said, stuck in her head for a long time. When she made it to UVa, her first choice in colleges, she steered toward the medical track by studying science.

“Medicine was always been something I was interested in, but before coming to UVa, I didn’t know what public policy was,” she said. “I didn’t know I was interested in it. When you get to a university, your mind really opens and you get to see what’s out there, things you didn’t know about. Those first two years are a time to learn and a time to explore.”

That’s exactly what she did.

 “I was taking lots of science courses my first and second years and I took a lot of science classes in high school. I loved science and it was pretty easy for me and I thought maybe I’d go into medicine or health care,” Oppong said. “But a lot of people started asking me about the Affordable Care Act when it was going into effect and, since I was interested in medicine, I started looking into it to answer their questions.”

She looked deep enough that she found her heart and changed her mind.

“At the time, I was looking at what I wanted to do because the science classes really weren’t working for me. The classes were so huge and I didn’t feel like I knew my professors and it wasn’t really interesting me,” she said. “The [teaching assistants] and the classes were great, but there was something missing for me. I felt I could do more. I thought I could do something more fulfilling.”

It took a few classes on public policy and health care for her to find it.

“I took some classes in the Batten School to learn more about the ACA and I found that I was really interested in public policy and writing policy memos. I love to write and it just fit what I was interested in,” Oppong said.

“I studied and wrote about texting and driving and other issues, but what I found most interesting was writing about health care,” Oppong said. “You’re looking at the programs that are in place, how they got there, how they got to where they are and you’re looking at how they can be improved. When you talk about health policies, you’re looking at how to improve the lives of people.”

She took that interest and ran with it. She completed a 2014 summer internship with the National Institutes of Health Department of Bioethics. She received a 2014 research grant from the UVa Institute for Practical Ethics.

This spring, she served as an intern with the Institutional Review Board for Health Sciences Research at UVa.

“Her positive attitude towards learning was infectious,” said Susie Hoffman, director of the review board. “While quietly sitting in the background, she absorbed key points as they related to her topic of study and relayed them into her final paper. It was a great pleasure to work with her over the semester.”

Lynn Noland, vice-chairwoman of the board, echoed that sentiment.

 “She is an impressive young woman who took full advantage of the opportunity she was offered to work with us,” Noland said. “I expect big things from her in the field of bioethics in the future. She is a bright light.”

Raymond Scheppach, the Batten School professor who advised Oppong’s capstone project, said she was “a real leader.”

“She really got into health care issues and she was good about asking questions and taking on issues,” he said.

Her scholastic life wasn’t all about books, though. She joined the Organization of African Students to reach out to others with a Ghanaian background and students from other African nations. She kept active in the group all four years, serving as president in her third and fourth years.

“My sister is nine years older than me, and when she went to college, she did the same thing. It’s a way to meet people who have a shared interest and to make quick friends with people who have something in common,” Oppong said.

“There are many different cultures in Africa and it is fun to meet others and to see what we share culturally and how we are different. Africa is a big place and there are different languages and different traditions,” she said. “In the organization, we tried to represent them all. That could sometimes be difficult, but that was our goal.”

It was not only fun, it served as a respite from studying, she said.

“You need some time to step away from the books,” Oppong said. “I was busy and sometimes I’d think to myself, ‘Should I be doing this? Shouldn’t I be studying?’ but I think everyone feels like that sometimes. I’m good at time management and I don’t get too stressed about things.”

That personality trait will no doubt come in handy when Oppong transitions from student to employee at the Lewin Group, a Falls Church health care consulting firm where she’ll be working in research analysis.

“I’d like to eventually study the Medicaid and Medicare programs, but there are so many places and topics, I really can’t say what field I’ll be in,” she said. “I’d like learn as much as I can about public health policy and eventually work, perhaps, with public health in Ghana.”

Oppong said she’s enjoyed her time at the university and is grateful to the Batten School for helping her find her way.

“When I first came to UVa, I was interested in medicine and I didn’t think I’d change my mind, but I did,” she said “When you go into a university, it’s important to branch out a bit and really get to know your interests and to challenge yourself.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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