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Meet Mandi Suzuki, MPH Graduate Student With a Passion For Community-Based Participatory Research

OHSU-PSU School of Public Health Graduate Student Mandi Suzuki

Graduate Spotlight: Mandi Suzuki

Mandi Suzuki is a graduate student of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health’s MPH Public Health Practice program. Applying her educational background, she has been working with the Ka Aha Lahui o Olekona Hawaiian Civic Club to create opportunities for healing, health and well-being among the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Community.


Q: What was the journey you experienced in academia/life/work that led you here?

I was born and raised on the island of O’ahu. Although I do not identify as a Native Hawaiian, I always felt a connection to the Native Hawaiian community, culture and language. Therefore, during high school, I enrolled in Native Hawaiian language classes, as well as hula, arts and cultural studies.

When I went to college, I first pursued a degree in general science, then got my doctoral degree in physical therapy. While working as a physical therapist, I became inspired to return to school to get my Master’s in Public Health. Divine intervention led me to Ka Aha Lahui o Olekona Hawaiian Civic Club (KALO HCC) and it immediately reminded me of my love of the Native Hawaiian culture and community. I was privileged and honored to be invited into this organization and am committed to serving in a way that is holistic, empowering, advocating and uplifting.


Q: What inspired you to pursue a degree in Public Health?

During the pandemic, I was working as a Physical Therapist in a hospital. I observed health inequities and disparities among populations I worked with and realized I wanted to address health and well-being focused from a preventative perspective. The field of public health is dedicated to exactly that.


Q: Did you face any challenges in entering the program or at any point during your academic journey that you were able to overcome?

Returning to graduate school was a challenge in itself – I was working full-time while taking classes. However, much of what I was learning in my courses was related to the work I was doing, so it provided a new perspective for approaching the healthcare system.


Q: Who/what served as an inspiration during your academic journey?

First and foremost, humanity! My interactions with patients, relationships with friends and family, and everyday observations of the beauty of the human experience have always inspired my work and journey. Additionally, my experiences working within a hospital, and therefore the healthcare system, have shown me that these structures are in desperate need of change and revitalization. We, as individuals and as a society, are catalysts to create change for equity and social justice.


Q: Who has been supportive of you in your academic journey?

My family, partner, friends, colleagues, professors and mentors. I have been incredibly fortunate to have a supportive crew of people who have cheered me on in my return to academia.


Q: What kind of impact do you hope to make in the world of Public Health and why?

My personal hope for pursuing a degree in Public Health is to shift the system from one that is profit-driven to one that is person- and relationship-centered by cultivating relationships that advocate for the holistic healing of individuals and communities. We, as human beings, need each other to grow, heal and thrive. As Ram Dass so eloquently said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”


Q: Why are you interested in working with KALO?

I stumbled upon KALO HCC when I decided to get back into dancing hula. I discovered the halau, Ka Lei Hali’a o Ka Lokelani a local hula school based in Beaverton, and upon joining, met Leialoha. At this time, I was about halfway through my MPH program and was looking to get involved with a non-profit working in community health engagement and programming. The stars would align – Lei mentioned their growing team and search for a health and well-being coordinator to promote and uplift the health of Native Hawaiians on the continent. I was immediately interested. Growing up in Hawai’i, I witnessed the health disparities experienced by the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community. I know how essential it is to learn from this community to collectively create opportunities for healing, health and well-being.


Q: How do you see the work/curriculum that you’re learning about public health can aid in the advancement and empowerment of the communities that KALO serves?

Although many of the courses I have taken are critical to the advancement and empowerment of the Native Hawaiian community (especially here on the continent), one aspect of public health that really connected with me is community-based participatory research. Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have historically been categorized together, which has resulted in a lack of disaggregated data around the specific health disparities and needs of the the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. Additionally, due to the historical trauma faced by these communities, there is a high distrust in government and research. Community-based participatory research allows the community to be involved throughout the research process and is committed to transparency, collaboration and respect, creating more opportunities for self-advocacy, efficacy and empowerment among NHPI communities.


Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work with KALO and the community that KALO serves?

My hope is to create health and wellness programs that address health inequity, promote accessibility, and create safe and empowered spaces for people to heal and thrive as individuals and communities. I am a facilitator in Mind-Body Medicine and currently am working with a cohort to promote and empower individuals around navigating stress and grief and learning skills around emotional processing and stress resilience. We also hold a monthly workshop focused on building community through movement. So far this year, we have collaborated with local yoga practitioners, hip-hop dancers, Zumba enthusiasts and hula teachers. Our Aloha Resource Community Center is open for individuals and communities and includes a food pantry, clothing closet and workspace to those in need. We always welcome people to stop by to learn more about our work and say hello!