Sometimes your college major can lead you directly to your career, and sometimes it sends you on a meandering path that crosses continents and oceans. Just ask Patrick Hazelton, Academic Specialist at the University of California San Francisco’s Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. Majoring in history led him to develop an interest in Africa, which led him to move to Morocco after graduation, and eventually to earn a joint Masters in Public Policy and International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley.
Along the way, Patrick has picked up language skills, teaching experience, and insight into life in developing countries. We catch up with Patrick to hear more about how he divides his time between the US and Mozambique, manages projects with collaborators in different continents and time zones, and uses his skills and knowledge to make an impact in global health.
What is your current company name and job title? If you’ve changed titles since you started at your company, what was your job title when you started?
I work at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) in the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS). My official title is Academic Specialist, but it’s probably more accurate to say that on a day-to-day level, I’m a Project Director.
I started here as an intern while I was in grad school as a policy analyst. That position involved conducting research and interviews related to HIV prevention and treatment in California. Before I began my Masters thesis in International and Area Studies, I did some networking conversations within the department. I told people I was about to write a thesis about global health policy and asked professors if there was any way to tie my academic needs in with their project needs.
One professor needed help to expand the projects associated with her grant for a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initiative in Mozambique, so that’s how I chose to focus on Mozambique. She liked the fact that I had studied Portuguese (which is the language of business in Mozambique, a former colony of Portugal), and had experience writing for an academic audience (because of my history major in college and my public policy background), so she supported me to go to Mozambique to conduct interviews for my thesis and in return I supported her project. This led to my current position.
The difference between my original internship and the position I hold now is that I’ve taken on more responsibilities. Now I lead and direct part of an HIV research project in California as well part of the project in Mozambique, which involves supporting the Mozambican Ministry of Health to build health information systems, which are both paper and electronic forms and databases used to track patients, medicines, and medical supplies across the country. We work with HIV/AIDS clinic agency directors and staff, and Ministry of Health and in-country non-governmental organization (NGO) officials and staff to track the epidemic across the country.
What’s a typical day on the job like for you?
A typical day in San Francisco would involve internal meetings with our team at UCSF. We have a small team working on academic manuscripts and technical evaluations of Ministry of Health projects in Mozambique. We also have colleagues at the University of Washington (UW) who have more experience building health systems, so we often collaborate with them to learn more about how to build and improve health systems in Mozambique.
I also write and edit academic manuscripts. These often have large teams of authors because we have so many collaborators. If we’re writing about Mozambique, we potentially want to include Mozambican Ministry of Health and NGO officials and staff, university professors in Mozambique, CDC employees in Mozambique and Atlanta, and other UCSF and UW colleagues, which means we need to do a lot of communicating and coordinating revisions across time zones and in both English and Portuguese.
My job also involves system/project coordination. We get a list of tasks and activities the CDC and other U.S. government agencies want us to accomplish in a year, but that can change. We have to be ready to adapt to their requirements, whether that means switching to a new health system model or providing advice about different strategies to improve health systems that affect the HIV/AIDS epidemic response in Mozambique.
Often we go to Mozambique and conduct small research projects and technical evaluations, which may include visiting medicine warehouses and talking to health care providers and data entry staff to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not in terms of existing health information systems. We also often consider opportunities to adapt strategies from nearby countries with more developed health systems, like Kenya and South Africa, to Mozambique.
What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the things you would change if you could?
I love that I get to work with so many different kinds of people across the world. I sometimes get to work with patients themselves when I’m doing ground-level data collection. I also speak to doctors, nurses, and other clinical providers on how they’re providing care to patients, and I get to work with academic researchers and other policy people who work for NGOs. Because there is a strong human rights component to the work we do, I come into contact with a lot of people who are really passionate about their jobs.
I also love having the chance to communicate in other languages like Portuguese and push myself to feel comfortable conducting training, interviews, and presentations in other languages.
The biggest challenge is balancing academic goals with the needs of our partners. Since we’re an academic institution, we follow the academic timeline and produce academic papers. This is especially important at UCSF. However, we also work with the Ministry of Health in Mozambique and the CDC, and they’re more oriented towards on-the-ground policy issues, which can sometimes come into conflict with the timeline of preparing and publishing academic manuscripts. So we frequently wrestle with the challenge of how to balance our need to gather and prepare data for publication with the need to turn the data around quickly to our on-the-ground partners so they can make immediate changes to their policies.
What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?
Being a history major gave me the opportunity to become immersed in writing a senior thesis where I worked one-on-one with a faculty advisor and became a better writer and researcher. As part of my history major, I was required to take history classes in other parts of the world—African history, Asian history, Latin American history—and it pushed me to become more invested in learning about the world outside of North America and Europe. This definitely increased my motivation to move abroad to Morocco after I graduated, where I taught high school history at an American school in Tangier for two years.
In college I also started learning foreign languages—I studied French and Spanish. After college I learned Arabic and eventually Portuguese, and being comfortable working in these languages has been very helpful to me in pursuing a career in global health and international development.
What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?
Take classes in things that are interesting to you. Global health in particular is getting more and more popular in terms of university coursework. I know UC Berkeley has undergrad global health classes, so if those classes are available to you at your college—take them!
If academic research appeals to you, try to identify faculty mentors. Work on a faculty grant (professors often get grants, so they might be able to employ you to do data collection work, such as administering surveys, or conducting interviews to help further their research).
Study foreign languages, and study or teach abroad. Gain a sense of what’s going on in the world. I have several colleagues who volunteered with the Peace Corps and that experience has been very valuable to them. [Editor’s note: To learn more about what it’s like to volunteer with the Peace Corps, check out our interview with former Peace Corps Volunteer Katy Davis about her time teaching in Namibia.]
A lot of global health and international development organizations like to see that people have work experience in developing countries. Figure out if it’s the right choice or something that you get excited about.
Your job involves a combination of office work and administration in the US and fieldwork in Mozambique. What are the benefits and challenges of working in such varied environments?
It’s nice to have a base here in California and to do work right where I went to grad school—I already have a great network of friends and colleagues here.
I go to Mozambique every three to four months for two or three weeks at a time, and it’s nice to have the comforts of home in California but also the excitement and adventure of travel and work abroad built into my schedule.
The professional downside is that there’s a nine-hour time difference and a 30-hour set of flights between San Francisco and Mozambique, so that gives a sense of distance and can make it challenging to maintain momentum with our colleagues across the world. We do a lot of early-morning calls and a lot of email. However, there’s no question that meeting people in person is really the most effective form of communication. The professor who runs our grant sends one of us from our team every few months, and we also recently hired a local, in-country employee to help maintain our presence on the ground and keep our contact steady.
In terms of project demands, the split between my work time in California and in Mozambique also allows me the opportunity to focus on the academic side when I’m in San Francisco and have the space and time to dedicate to research and writing, whereas when I’m in Mozambique, I focus more with my team on convening and attending lots of meetings, and making logistical choices and quick decisions regarding project activities. I also use my time in-country to build rapport and a sense of shared mission with my colleagues and collaborators.
Homework time! Patrick talks about the importance of spending time volunteering or working in developing countries to see if this is the right career path for you. To learn more about some of the opportunities to travel or work abroad after graduating, check out our posts on The Fulbright Scholarship, The Watson Fellowship, and The Peace Corps. Check with the international office at your school to find out if there are any trips during school holidays that you could get involved in.