Alumni Short

Jocelyn Getgen '07

Good Health Is a Human Right

Jocelyn Getgen '07 believes that good health is a human right, and that the law is a tool to make that happen. Currently at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Ms. Getgen plans to complete both her MPH and JD in December of 2007. She decided on that path after majoring in government at Cornell, serving as a health promotion assistant at Gannett Health Center, and then working as a health volunteer for the Peace Corps in Ecuador.

"My high school English teacher told me that I should either become a car salesman or a lawyer, because I could say anything and make it sound good," Ms. Getgen reports with a laugh. Committed to helping people in painful situations, Ms. Getgen still knows how to laugh and enjoy life.

Born and raised in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Ms. Getgen is the first person in her family to go to college. Her younger sister, Erin, and one brother, Joe, became the second and third, all with strong support from her parents. Her youngest brother, Doug, has Downs Syndrome and, she says, "He is the best thing that ever happened to our family. He shows us how to love unconditionally.

After doing well on her PSATs, Ms. Getgen received view books for several colleges. "Cornell was close to home, and saw something in me," she says. "When I got here I was completely blown away by all the opportunity and the diversity of the student body." Although she played softball in high school, at Cornell, she says, "I was all about studying. I thought they must have made a mistake letting me in! Clearly, Cornell made no mistake: Ms. Getgen served as a Resident Advisor, spent a semester working for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington D.C., worked with the Gannett Center on a task force on high-risk student drinking, and graduated with distinction.

"I had amazing mentors at Gannett," Ms. Getgen says. "Jan Talbot, Tim Marchell, Sharon Dittman – they helped me focus on the issues that were really important, and took time to think about my professional career development." With their help, and at the suggestion of a friend who had spent a semester in Africa, Ms. Getgen decided to apply to the Peace Corps. Then, half way through her training in Ecuador, September 11 happened. "We had been there long enough to feel committed, but we still wanted to go home and help there," Ms. Getgen recalls. "My boyfriend said 'we need you there more than ever.' That's the first time I thought of the Peace Corps as my duty as an American, as opposed to my duty as a member of the human race.

Ms. Getgen was posted to a small community in southern Ecuador, in the Andes. "I led informal chats on basic health care; I organized mother's groups where I learned how to make bananas 35 different ways; I worked on

vaccination campaigns; I even helped to deliver babies.” Before she left, she applied for and received a grant to train teachers in the health care teaching methods, and worked with the mayor to create a place for domestic violence victims. And she visited a woman whose new baby had Downs Syndrome. Delighted to learn about a baby like her beloved brother Doug, Ms. Getgen visited the mother and asked to hold and cuddle the child. “She just started to bawl,” Ms. Getgen says. “She told me ‘until now, I was not allowed to love my baby.’ I felt like that’s the reason I was sent there. Few others could have done that.”


Returning to the U.S., Ms. Getgen applied to the joint law/public health degree programs at Columbia and Georgetown, and to Cornell Law School. “In the Peace Corps, it just kept coming back to law. Public health and law are inseparable,” she explains. With Dean Lukingbeal’s help, Ms. Getgen set up a joint degree, finishing her second year at the Law School, attending Johns Hopkins, then returning to complete her law degree. With the generous scholarships given by Cornell alumni, Jocelyn feels less pressure to work in a firm to repay her debts and will be able to pursue her career in international human rights and public health.

At the Law School, Ms. Getgen continued to volunteer for human rights groups, and interned at the Safe Horizon Domestic Violence Law Project in Brooklyn, NY. Naturally, she studied international organizations and human rights institutions with Professor Muna Ndulo. “He made me continue to love thinking critically about human rights issues, and opened my eyes to a lot of different interests,” says Ms. Getgen. She also worked in the Legal Aid Clinic where, she notes, “Barry Strom helped me to realize how much people are depending you in a vulnerable time, and how to give their power back to them.”

At Johns Hopkins, Ms. Getgen is focusing on community-based mental health. “In conflict and post-conflict societies, you first have to attend to the mental health problems caused by breakdown in communities,” she explains. Transitional justice programs such as truth commissions can allow people to live once again among neighbors and to demand justice, reconciliation and reparation for harms suffered in violent conflict.

“I wasn’t a kid of privilege, but I had a lot of privileges because of the country I was born in. I can identify with people who weren’t born with all those privileges. I want to help them transcend that,” Ms. Getgen explains. “I work with a lot of horrible situations and see a lot of really bad things. But the people I work with are some of the most beautiful and inspiring people I’ve ever known.”

Judith Pratt