Nassim Ashford, M.P.H. ’23, was already heavily involved with social justice issues when he applied to the Yale School of Public Health and became an M.P.H. student in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Ukraine was on few people’s radars in America when Ashford entered his first year at Yale last September. And it didn’t take much for him to apply his passion for tackling racism and inequality to what he saw happening in Ukraine after the Russian invasion in February.
Ashford had co-founded the humanitarian organization NoirUnited International in 2020 as a response to the George Floyd protests and the global movement for racial justice and equality. When he learned that Black students from several countries were being harassed at the border while trying to flee Ukraine to neighboring countries, he and NoirUnited co-founder Macire Aribot, a first-year master’s degree student studying international affairs at Columbia University, put their organizational experience and learning to use.
Teaming up with other organizations, the pair raised $125,000 to provide for the students’ necessities, advocate for extensions of their refugee status and help them continue their education. They also traveled to Ukraine to meet with some of the students themselves.
“Our organization was founded as an international development and humanitarian organization that could focus on sustainable solutions to address social, economic and political development problems,” Ashford explained. “We recognize that many issues faced in socially marginalized communities stem from historically unbalanced inequities. After seeing Black students and families face racism and discrimination while fleeing Ukraine, we knew it was an important issue to mobilize for.”
What surprised Ashford the most, he said, “was how resilient Black students were in the face of adversity and the double trauma of racism and war that they experienced. This inspired me to continue my advocacy to ensure that they would have the opportunity to continue their education and fulfill their future goals.”
Ashford connected with students both on social media and in person, which “further allowed us to witness their needs firsthand and advocate on their behalf. In particular, we came across a group of students stranded in Kherson, Ukraine, sheltering in bunkers amid bombings and shootings. In response to their situation, we worked with organizers across the globe to provide them with food and water and coordinate their safe evacuation.”
He and Aribot also met with several students in Europe and learned that they were receiving “limited aid distribution and lack of support from larger humanitarian efforts in providing students with much-needed assistance. Recognizing their critical needs, we stepped in to fill the support gap and provide students with essential needs, transportation funds, and housing help.
“We are currently working to ensure educational opportunities for them to finish their degrees, he continued. “We continue to advocate for students and amplify their voices and struggles faced throughout this crisis.”
In that spirit, Ashford returned to Yale to finish the semester and take his finals while also continuing to collaborate with other groups to assist the refugees. He also returned to the halls of Congress – where he served in the spring semester of 2020 as a legislative intern to Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat – hoping to raise lawmakers’ awareness of the refugees’ struggles. He specifically mentioned Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, as someone who showed interest in their plight – and their interest in continuing their education.
“After spending numerous hours working with students, their direct concern is that they would like to continue their education,” Ashford said of the refugees “We have made several partnerships with colleges and universities around the country to begin accepting students, so they can begin retaking classes. The senator’s office has agreed to assist them with the visa application process and expedited those who already have been accepted into schools within the United States.”
The Atlanta native, who earned his bachelor’s degree in global health at Mercer College, had an impressive résumé before entering YSPH. In addition to his work with NoirUnited International and his congressional internship, Ashford worked 17 months as a public health advisor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in his hometown. That had a huge influence on his opting to pursue his graduate studies at Yale.
“Working at the CDC during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic allowed me to understand the impact of public health policies and how the world depended on this field to find a way forward through the crisis,” he said. “I learned about the importance of health communications and the risk associated with misinformation about the disease. From collecting data regarding hospitalizations and cases to analyzing racial disparities in infections and death rates, I also saw firsthand the need for public health professionals who could properly address those inequities.
“I chose YSPH,” he said, “because of its wide range of program options, flexibility and renowned faculty. My program concentration is in Social and Behavioral Sciences, which uses a social justice approach to improve health interventions in underserved populations. Yale has provided me with the opportunity to maximize my potential in the field of public health and further understand how to apply public health principles to supporting Black and other marginalized communities.”
Ashford said one of the most important classes he took his first year at YSPH was Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara’s Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) class. “We learned to apply CBPR principles to aid in community organizing and activism,” he said. “She brought in multiple community leaders and activists to speak with [us] about their work and opportunities to address public health issues, such as mental health, police brutality and immigrant health, that affect socially vulnerable communities.” He also cited Assistant Professor Ashley Hagaman’s Qualitative Methods class and Assistant Clinical Professor Michael Wininger’s Biostatistics class as being important influences in his academic career.
“Thus far, my courses have prepared and equipped me with the tools and resources to advocate for both public and global health issues,’ he said. “Throughout my travels, I found that it doesn’t take much to take the initiative to be an advocate and support those who need help. Going into this journey, my goal was to assist as many marginalized people as possible and listen to the untold stories of individuals directly impacted by racism and discrimination while fleeing the war in Ukraine. Through raising awareness, I hope to ensure their voices and experiences are not overlooked and forgotten.”
Ashford plans to pursue a Ph.D. once he earns his master’s, and his experience working with refugee students has only sharpened that desire, “It has prompted me to think about how to understand and develop methods to address humanitarian needs during times of crisis,” Ashford said. “My research focus would still be on social determinants of health. However, I would also like to assess how public health emergencies impact the lives of marginalized communities around the world.” He also plans to expand NoirUnited International, and implement programs around the world.
When asked what he would tell a prospective student interested in attending YSPH, Ashford said, “At YPSH, you have the opportunity to take advantage of all of the resources available to support students. The program is really flexible and provides various options to choose from in my different areas of public health. Students can also take classes across different schools at Yale to understand how public health principles intersect with other fields. In addition, YSPH provides the opportunity to connect with students from diverse backgrounds and experiences worldwide.”