Economics alumna discovers passion for public health and social work

Sam McNelly ’14

Sam McNelly ’14 spent her time at The College of Wooster exploring a variety of interests, ranging from her major in economics to her love of playing trombone in the Scot Marching Band. Combining her passions for healthcare, social justice, and data analytics, McNelly’s journey after graduation led her to a position as a program evaluator at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, where she continues to apply the interdisciplinary lessons that she learned at Wooster to support public health promotion and prevention programs serving Alaska Native people and communities throughout the state.  

McNelly’s time at Wooster was filled with extracurricular, research, and experiential learning activities that allowed her to explore her interests and gain new experiences outside of her area of study. She was one of the founders of Vox, a Planned Parenthood advocacy group on campus. She also took part in the Global Social Entrepreneurship program in Bangalore, India, where students are paired with non-profit organizations to work on social change projects, and spent a semester abroad in Nairobi, Kenya. During her time in Kenya, McNelly not only honed her research skills, but also developed skills in health and community development.  

Drawing on the skills she learned at the College, McNelly joined the Peace Corps after graduation and travelled to Cameroon. Beginning as an agrobusiness volunteer, she later switched to health-related work, specifically focusing on the reproductive health of Cameroonian teenage girls. Though she felt uncertain at first, she later grew to love the work. “It wasn’t anything I felt I knew anything about. I felt really out of my element, but I realized that I can actually do this work, and it felt so impactful,” McNelly explained.  

When she returned home to Anchorage, Alaska, McNelly realized that people-centered work was the path for her, taking a full-time job as a sex educator at Planned Parenthood and a part-time job at a local domestic violence shelter. “I was shocked at how much I loved these jobs. I learned so much even though they were so different than anything I had seen myself doing. I loved how community oriented they were,” she said.  

Inspired by her newfound interests, McNelly went on to receive a dual master’s degree in public health and social work from Washington University in St. Louis and took her current position as a program evaluator for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Here, she collects and analyzes data to show how health programs are impacting the community to ensure that the organization’s work is high quality and effective, focusing on programs related to domestic violence prevention, suicide prevention, and comprehensive cancer control. “There are a lot of added layers in a Tribal non-profit to make sure that we’re doing things ethically and that we’re centering Alaskan Native people since that’s our target population. It’s a unique and complex system,” McNelly said.  

McNelly says that her experiences at Wooster taught her valuable lessons she continues to rely on. She specifically recalls taking Peace Studies with Kent J. Kille, professor of political science. “That class really challenged how I thought about the world—not just politically,” she said. “I never had the language to describe systems of structural violence before. Now, those are the systems that I think about today as they come up in my daily work.” The project management and research skills McNelly uses every day are also skills she honed at Wooster, especially during her Independent Study project. “It was definitely the biggest project I had ever undertaken, and it took perseverance, but that really helped me to develop a lot as a person,” McNelly recalled. 

The skills, knowledge, and abilities that McNelly gained during her time at Wooster continue to help her both professionally and personally. As she said, “the ability to explore fields outside of what you think you might be interested in is so essential for us in becoming well-rounded humans. I’m extremely confident that a liberal arts education was the right move for me, and I have nothing but gratitude for my time at Wooster.” 

Posted in Alumni on February 19, 2024.

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