Alumni Stories: Jessica Ochalek (Global Studies/Global Security ’08)

In 2006 President Nursultan Nazarbayev invited us all to come see if Kazakhstan really is the racist, sexist, backward country Sacha Baron Cohen’s film Borat portrayed it to be. We may not all make it to Kazakhstan, or most of the other nearly 200 countries in the world today, but for each place we go we gain so much and leave a piece of ourselves.

The same year that movie was released I applied for a semester abroad program in China. At the time, CIE didn’t have any study abroad programs in the city I most wanted to go to, so I made my own way, applying first to another university for a semester and then to their study abroad program—which included an internship—in Beijing. Although transferring credits back required a fair bit of coordination, it was a success, and the China Studies Institute at Peking University is now tied directly with CIE at UWM.

Twice weekly I made my way from the Peking University’s majestic campus to an equally transcendental hutong—one of many seemingly ancient courtyards connected by narrow alleyways—in Chaoyang District in the center of the city. The internship there led me to a part-time job at a Chinese firm in Milwaukee in my junior year of college, which turned full time upon graduation. In the meantime, I took advantage of a second opportunity to gain experience abroad as part of a Winterim trip for nursing majors (of which, notably, I was not one) to Malawi, which inspired my Global Security capstone paper on HIV/AIDS in Uganda.

Although the first study abroad had already built the foundations of a successful career, it was the second that captivated me and inspired me to complete both a Master of Public Health degree in Boston and an MSc in Health Economics in York, England. Between the two, I racked up year-long experience in global health in an international organization, as a researcher at a university and at a non-profit organization. The forward momentum at last came full circle when my first piece of research as a health economist was a paper quantifying the policy-relevant effect of HIV/AIDS on employment in Uganda.

The Global Security program’s multidisciplinary coursework provides the tools to approach problems from a variety of intellectual angles. The study abroad requirement opens doors, and gives you something that stands out on your resume before you’ve even finished your degree. There is so much to get involved with at UWM though too: from student organizations like AIESEC to regular events on campus that create a bridge between the theory we learn and the real world—like the Institute of World Affairs’ Fireside Forum series. I’m hugely grateful that I chose a major in Global Security to be the foundation for my career, and I look forward to continuing to build upon it, and to eventually one of these days making that much overdue trip to Kazakhstan!