May 17 2016

JongJin Jo: Gotta Have Faith

In the days leading up to Commencement, the Mailman School website is featuring first-person accounts from nine members of the graduating class as they reflect on their singular paths into public health, some of the surprising lessons they took away from their experience at the Mailman School, and their aspirations for the years ahead. 

Among others, you’ll meet a former high school teacher who excelled in the lab while working to overcome the “imposter syndrome”; a Texas native intent on improving the odds for young women’s access to reproductive health in her home state; an aspiring physician who hit on the winning formula for compassionate care; and a scholarship-winning MHA grad set on making his mark at the Mayo Clinic.

Health, family, and faith have always been interconnected for Population and Family Health graduate JongJin Jo. This trifecta drove JJ to public health. Now it empowers him to build new pathways to improve the health of underserved populations in New York.


I found my public health calling while working on a Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. Some summers I travel there for missionary work to help with a youth education program. During our first visit in 2011, I saw that the community is dealing with high rates of domestic violence, incarceration, substance abuse, and unemployment. All these put a strain on families and a burden on children that contributes to poor health. I remember thinking we are in the United States, but these people are not getting the services and overall support that U.S. citizens should get. 

As a person who really cares for people, I asked myself what can I do, how can I really engage? The experience inspired me to seek out a path to connect my faith and my knowledge of health with the goal of making a difference.

Public health was the logical next step. I already had an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s in applied physiology. For years I had been working in medical research, but I wanted the big picture and the skills to work directly with underserved populations. While going through the Core, I chose the Child, Youth, and Family Health certificate. My passion is for underserved populations overall, but having three children gave me a special appreciation and personal experience to support my interest in child health. 

In the winter after my first semester at Mailman, I was fortunate to connect with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, where I completed my summer practicum. Faith-based groups often serve as an access point to community heath and act as a platform for promoting participation in initiatives that benefit the community. Drawing on this knowledge, I assessed why the City’s program to encourage breastfeeding at faith-based organizations fell short of its goals. My research found a combination of barriers to success that ranged from a lack of resources to follow up with women to the negative perceptions that some faith leaders had of breastfeeding.

My practicum was an invaluable complement to my coursework. The Director of the Office, Moses Mansu, and Prof. Virginia Rauh advised on the overarching question and provided ongoing guidance. Classes like Program Planning, Survey Design, and lessons by Prof. Linda Cushman, gave me the tools to select the specific questions to ask faith leaders.

I officially joined as the Office of Faith-Based Initiative’s new Manhattan coordinator this January. At my job, I get to help children, families, and communities in need, while drawing on my faith and knowledge of health. We focus on the needs of Manhattan—asthma, mental health, high blood pressure, diabetes, and HIV. My role is to connect community-based organizations, the Health Department, and an interfaith advisory group of imams, rabbis, Christian leaders, and leaders from other religions. I make sure that their voices are heard while educating them about and organizing Health Department initiatives relevant to their communities.

I’m very happy with the choice I made to come to Mailman. My family provided the extra strength and incentive to carry out my dream. My wife, Jahyun, a graduate of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, supported our family in her job at the United Nations while I focused on my studies. At the same time, my children provide a daily reminder about the importance of public health work.