Linden Alumna On Front Lines Fighting Covid-19, Serving Marginalized Communities
Raha Mahmoudi, class of 2011.
When Raha Mahmoudi (class of 2011) decided to pursue a Masters Degree in Public Health at McMaster University, she had no idea that public health would take centre stage globally with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After completing a BSc in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Waterloo, Raha immersed herself in volunteering in her community, which led her to discover her passion for public health and further understand the social determinants of health through a Bachelor of Public Health. She has tutored women in peer adult literacy programs, and led recreational programs for seniors transitioning through memory loss at retirement homes. Living in a community largely composed of newcomers, immigrants, and refugees, it was natural to support community-led health promotion initiatives: Raha has offered workshops on stress management, navigating the system, and healthy eating, and she has also been part of a school pediatric clinic focused on improving outcomes for children with behavioural and developmental concerns. We spoke with Raha over the December holidays:
Raha supporting a vaccine pop-up clinic.
Linden: What are you up to now?
Raha: I recently finished my first term at McMaster. It’s all virtual at the moment so I am at home with my family. This allows me to be part of Health Access Thorncliffe Park’s COVID outreach initiative in my community, where we are seeing high test positivity rates. We have been working on making testing more accessible and making public health messaging more resonant for the diverse residents we serve. As community ambassadors, we’ve been going to various locations such as apartments, local businesses, pharmacies, and services, and speaking with community members. We have been offering in-building testing as a way to remove any barriers to getting tested. We post videos and create messaging in languages spoken in the community. Currently, we have videos in 12 languages! We’ve also been ensuring that resources for food security, housing, income support, and mental health are available. I continue to work as a research assistant with the Well-Link Lab, a psychology lab focused on the mental health and well-being of students going through work-to-school transitions such as those in the co-op program or those entering first year.
Making masks available to community members who have more barriers to information and PPE.
Linden: Where do you aspire to make your mark after completing your Master's program?
Raha: I’m excited to bridge my passion for reducing health inequities with structural and systemic level change in paediatrics. This means I’d like to have an impact on the lives of children whose communities have less access to health care services and adequate supports. I’ve had the privilege of observing the disconnect between how marginalized groups are addressed in the clinical setting and I’d like to be a part of leveling the playing field. No one child should be left behind when accessing healthcare. Presently, I’m looking forward to my summer practicum at the Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University. I’ll be analyzing data on children’s mental health services and translating these findings for a policymaker audience, so I’m excited to bridge research and policy in this placement. Initially, I was interested in cardiology, but my big picture has changed to pediatric medicine. A healthy start is so important for children because it can change the trajectory of a life!
Linden: How did Linden influence your choice of career?
Raha: Linden provided me with the space to voice my thoughts and ideas, which has strengthened over the years. I thought I would be a hard-core science student but the further along I got in my studies, the more I was drawn to the connection between socio-economic factors and health equity. My experience at Linden influenced my career and volunteer choices through the feminist and social justice lens embedded in the curriculum, and also through Linden’s encouragement of community engagement.
Linden: Were you well-prepared for university?
Raha: Linden is so small and tight-knit. I always had the opportunity to ask teachers questions. Going to Waterloo’s bigger classrooms was a bit of an adjustment, but I was excited to sit at the front of the class, especially when I saw how distracting it was to sit further behind in the large lecture halls. Connecting with professors got easier the more I attended office hours and got to chat about my broader interests in equity. Biljana, my science teacher, was fundamental in making my undergrad transition very smooth. She helped me be comfortable in that lab setting, doing titrations and producing reports — and there were so many reports at university.
Linden: Were there any unexpected benefits of your Linden education?
Raha: Linden not only solidified my strong foundation in the sciences, but in other subjects as well. The confidence with technology that I acquired at Linden allowed me to take the lead on a university project where we had to create a 15-minute animated video to explain the epidemiology of TB. I was able to jump right in, learn the platform and teach it to others. Digital literacy has helped me to excel in statistical programming software which has been very beneficial in both my undergrad and masters. Grade 8 robotics definitely came through! Essay writing in English class was not my strength in high school, but Anne Lyden (former Linden English teacher) helped me improve my writing by offering a lot of guidance and support, reviewing and re-reviewing my drafts. I took an English course required for my Bachelor of Public Health program, and my professor suggested I publish my work! I was so surprised when this same prof reached out to me asking if she could submit my personal narrative to the department’s award committee, and even more shocked when my piece won the award. I now enjoy creative writing, and I find it useful in academic writing as well.
Raha still has the small but meaningful gift from Nasrin she received as a student.
Linden: Any favourite memories of Linden you'd like to share?
Raha: There are so many! I had great times with Chiku who was my best friend in high school, and still is. Math class with Nasrin, volleyball and basketball practices at the church with Deidre, and physics and chemistry with Biljana were highlights. I loved learning how to play steel pans from Panman Pat and Joy Lapps! What a unique opportunity. I later joined a steel pan group outside of high school. Martin — who often asked me to put my snacks away at the beginning of class — was an amazing Spanish teacher. I marvel that I took Spanish for just three years, yet became very proficient. The emphasis on learning about cultures in various Spanish speaking countries was amazing. Nasrin gave me a miniature cutlery set because I had forgotten a fork at home for my lunch one day. The cutlery had blue handles and was the perfect size. I kept it in my lunch bag all year (washed it of course), and still have it. It was a small but very meaningful act.
Linden: What advice would you give to Linden students?
Raha: I would say continue to build supportive networks. It took me a while to see the impact of them once in university and onwards, but through the ways you get involved with Linden extracurriculars, volunteering, and even work, you are building a community that will rally behind you. You can turn to those close to you when you’re unsure about your direction, and also get a chance to learn about something completely new. I hadn’t known about the field of public health until I was part of the adult literacy program and heard the words “social determinants of health” for the first time. Strengthening networks certainly looked different 10 years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has made things challenging, however find creative ways to pursue your interests and don’t be afraid to try new things and new courses. I thought I knew exactly what I was going to do after high school, but my goals and interests evolved. It’s also fine if you don’t have the next four years mapped out, or are interested in a few things. Take the time and space to learn what you are passionate about. Volunteering is a great way to do this. I was enriched by opportunities where I ended up learning far more than what I initially supported. Ask around about whatever you’re interested in and opportunities that align with your values, and pay close attention to what’s happening to your neighbours and surroundings because something may need action right under your nose. The seniors program and pediatric clinic were within two minutes of my apartment, which gave me the chance to truly understand community-based involvement. If your journey changes course, or if your path winds, it’s important to know that this is okay: you can learn from these changes. One of my mentors has instilled in me that “life is a marathon not a sprint”, and that has made me value the journey all the more. Take the time to discover what resonates with you and where you want to make a difference. The learning never stops!