By Vanessa Ochavillo
As the daughter of a doctor, Stanford junior Mika Koch has always been interested in medicine. But after participating in a global health online academy in high school that brought together students from Japan, Malaysia, and other parts of the world, she realized that what works in one place might not work in another. The experience expanded what she thought was possible, and she has since been committed to developing a nuanced understanding of how to improve human health effectively on a global scale.
Koch is a human biology major with a focus on global women’s health and is minoring in human rights. She spent the summer after freshman year working in a rural hospital in Kenya, gaining experience and an understanding of what their needs were. Last year, through a Stanford in Government Fellowship, she worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Innovation Service in Geneva, Switzerland. In this role, she contributed to the UNHCR Innovation Women Series, which highlights the perspectives and challenges of women working in the humanitarian field. She also helped develop an analytics engine to predict the influx of refugees and internally displaced people from Somalia to better prepare the regional office. Additionally, she contributed writing to the UNCHR’s Communicating with Communities practical guide, including that “the best knowledge of resources, needs, and desires comes from the people who are themselves displaced.”
“People on the ground know their circumstances, and they know what needs to be done much better than we do,” Koch said. “In the humanitarian sector, our goal is to listen, support, and catalyze their creativity on the ground. They are agents of their own protection and their voices must be at the center of everything we do.”
Koch is being recognized as a 2018 Newman Civic Fellow by Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne recommended her for the award, which honors student leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to finding solutions for complex social and environmental challenges.
“To all of her work, Mika brings humility, genuine concern for others, and a contagious optimism for what is possible,” said Deborah Stipek, Haas Center for Public Service Peter E. Haas Faculty Director. “We are so pleased to see her honored for her commitment to make a difference on and off campus. She is poised to become a distinguished leader in the field, and she exemplifies the commitment to service that the Newman Civic Fellowship represents.”
Many of Koch’s endeavors, from serving in a rural hospital in Kenya to the United Nations, have been driven by a need to understand the “balance between fulfillment and impact.”
“When I was in Kenya and working in a hospital, I had so much excitement and energy to go out and do things. Yet, I was thinking to myself, ‘This is a very small scale,’ and wondering, ‘How do you balance that sense of fulfillment with the goal of impacting as many lives as you can?’” Koch said.
At Stanford, she continues to explore the balance between personal fulfillment and impact through leadership roles both with Partners in Health’s Stanford chapter and the organization’s national steering committee.
Mika joined Partners in Health in her first year at Stanford as the group’s education lead. She went on to be appointed to the organization’s national steering committee as the fundraising co-chair. She also has served as the Stanford chapter’s president for the last two years, helping to double its membership.
As president, she works to emphasize the importance of each operational arm—education, advocacy, and fundraising— to encourage an appreciation for diverse approaches to global health. She also strives to foster a culture of mutual learning among members, who come from all class years and majors, from computer science to psychology.
“People want to do direct service, which is understandable, yet the field of global health requires many disciplines and efforts at all levels. What you learn when you’ve seen more of the field is that you can help people in a lot of different ways, which are all incredibly important and teach you the difference between service and volunteering,” she said.
Koch said she is honored to receive the Newman Civic Fellowship, noting, “I plan to pursue a life of service. A lot of times public service gets cast aside because people think that you’re not going to earn a lot of money, or that it’s not exciting and innovative. I think this field has the largest opportunity to be creative and make change globally.” She continued, “People get burned out in this field, because change is so long-term. It’s hard to get that immediate gratification that people need, so things like people saying ‘thank you’ and the Newman Award matter.”
Koch plans to spend the upcoming summer doing research that will look at female health-seeking behavior in hospitals following the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, which currently has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. She said research will be unlike any of the field experiences that she has had so far and will be invaluable as the next step in her exploration.
Vanessa Ochavillo, a Stanford alumna, is a Cardinal Service coordinator at the Haas Center for Public Service.