Afrikaans to English: Gabi Wiggill discovers globalist view, joy at the intersection of medicine, science and law
This week, Gabi Wiggill crossed Georgia Southern University’s Spring 2023 Commencement stage to earn a bachelor’s degree in public health with an emphasis in global health, following four years of rigorous coursework and faculty-mentored research within the Honors College. This summer, she’ll continue her studies in the Master of Public Health program at Yale University, which “was always the dream,” said Wiggill.
Five years ago, however, Wiggill couldn’t have predicted her success as a new student in Georgia. Uprooted a quarter into her 11th grade year of high school, Wiggill and her family moved from Pretoria, South Africa, to Augusta where as a 17-year-old she was bumped up to the senior class. However, her English was rudimentary, and she recalled how much her mouth hurt as she transitioned from her home languages of Afrikaans and German to the new lexicon.
Diligent and focused, Wiggill excelled, but was stalled again as she was accepted to multiple state colleges with scholarships, yet there wasn’t enough coverage for the $50,000 international student tuition that she faced as a visa-holder. She’d have to sit out for a year and wait for her family’s green cards.
Not one to be idle, Wiggill relocated to Girona, Spain, for a year where she lived with a local family and taught English in an elementary school. She marveled at the young children who were bolder than their counterparts in South Africa, and traveled extensively throughout Europe. Most notable were people’s similarities, not their differences, in her interactions. The experience reshaped her world view, that in turn, redefined her educational and professional path goals.
“I have a very globalist philosophy and that’s where it started,” said Wiggill. “Being able to go out there and see how singular we all are, like one group of people, rather than nations separately, and how we’re really not that different.”
She returned to the U.S. and matriculated as a biochemistry major at Georgia Southern with the goal of studying medicine, but she discovered public health through a professor who was involved with UNICEF. Knowing she wanted to work with an international organization, public health’s tenants of science and global literacy intersected in a way that excited Wiggill. She switched majors.
“Public health is about everything everywhere,” she said. “It’s a multidisciplinary field. It’s made up of people in different career fields. Public health is in food safety, and then you have people who inspect building construction sites for worker safety. And you’ve got epidemiologists who track diseases, and you’ve got medicine. I think everyone could benefit from a public health minor at the very least, because no matter what job you go into, it’s going to apply. It’s so important.”
Throughout her time at the University, Wiggill served on numerous student advising councils for the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health dean and the University president, among others, and served as the head delegate and an assistant advisor for the Georgia Southern Model United Nations team. She also worked as a resident advisor in University Housing where she oversaw the Honors Living and Learning Community.
A highlight in her final year, Wiggill was awarded a National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Excellence Award for her innovative work on the Period Equity Movement (PEM), which she initiated during her first year on campus. The program stemmed from a class research paper she wrote about the devastating environmental effects of plastic medical waste from 20 billion menstrual products per year in the U.S. alone that can’t be recycled. Further research revealed the extent of academic learning loss due to period poverty, a term coined for students who skip classes because they don’t have the products they need to go out. This can lead to depression and detrimental, unhygienic practices.
Her efforts grew into a University-backed program that is today housed in Georgia Southern’s Office of Student Wellness and Health Promotion. PEM is a multi-campus initiative led by students, staff and faculty to promote period equity with the Green Period Pantry, Disposable Period Pantry and Period Products On the Go sites across all three Georgia Southern campuses. The program is funded by several grants provided by Sustain Southern and the Office of Inclusive Excellence, as well as external sources, that total $87,000.
She is in talks with the Graduate Student Council at Yale to expand the program to its campus.
Wiggill is proud of her accomplishments, and grateful for the support she received at Georgia Southern.
“I think the big thing that I’ve really appreciated about Georgia Southern was that when I speak to people who are staff and faculty, they do not dismiss me,” she said. “They listen to me, my ideas, and then they actually try to help me accomplish those.
“One thing that has always stood out to me was discussions with professors like Dr. Francis Desiderio, who’s the associate dean of the Honors College, or Dr. Stuart Tedders, dean of the College of Public Health. They’re wonderful. They’re such busy people, but they want to talk and help me develop. That has been incredible to me.”
Moving forward, Wiggill estimates she’ll one day practice medicine while influencing health policy either on a national or international level.
“The U.N., for example, is a great example of where I might like to work someday,” she said. “Public health deals with the intersection of medicine, science and law, and how we apply that. So it really comes down to health policy. I think it’s fascinating. I love understanding infectious diseases and things like that and then being able to apply policies to them. How are we going to treat them? How are we going to respond to them as a society? It’s very compelling. It’s interesting how things evolve and change. I’m just happy.
“I’m going to leave Georgia Southern with gratitude. That’s the biggest thing. There’s so much that I learned, and I just have gratitude.”