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Vital People

Sharon Kim-Gibbons, Vice President, Public Health Programs

As a finance major graduating from Georgetown University, Sharon Kim-Gibbon’s career path could have taken a much different turn.

“I thought I’d work as an investment banker,” said Kim-Gibbons, Vice President, Public Health Programs & Partnerships at Vital Strategies. But when she moved to New York, she discovered that working in finance did not appeal to her as much as her volunteer work did. “That’s when I realized I’m only happy when I’m doing something that is community service oriented.”

Instead of Wall Street, Kim-Gibbons traveled to Bolivia as a Peace Corps volunteer, where she got her first introduction to public health in action.

Although she was assigned to work on small business development, the farmers Kim-Gibbons was working with also volunteered as community health workers in their villages. She worked closely with hundreds of these “barefoot doctors,” and got involved in health education and village activities. “That’s when I met other public health professionals and realized that public health is not just being a doctor or a nurse—there’s a whole other world out there.”

Before long, Kim-Gibbons found herself applying to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “I remember sitting on my bed in my hut in Bolivia, under candlelight (no electricity), writing letters by hand and asking for applications and brochures.”

Before enrolling in the master’s program, Kim-Gibbons returned to Seoul, where her parents were living at the time, to teach English and make some money.

Kim-Gibbons’ parents were born in Korea and came to the U.S. to study on post-Korean War scholarships. Her mother was the first female Fulbright scholar from Korea in 1961, while her father’s scholarship was from a church fund. Their three children were born in the U.S., and Kim-Gibbons spent the first nine years of her life split between North Carolina, Michigan and New Jersey.  When she was in the fourth grade, her family moved back to Korea, where Kim-Gibbons completed high school.

Was her family surprised by this pivot in her career choice? From finance to public health?

Her parents were not unsupportive, but they were skeptical that their American-born child would choose a career focused on developing countries. “They didn’t understand,” she said. “I believe they were secretly hoping I would come back [from the Peace Corps] and go to medical school. I don’t think they thought this kind of global development work would stick.”

Even Kim-Gibbon’s aunts and uncles in Korea—many of whom are doctors—were baffled at first. She used specific examples to explain her career path to them. Do people use seat belts? Do they smoke? Does everyone have access to nutritious food?

When she offered these examples, she could see the lightbulb going on over their heads. They do get it now, Kim-Gibbons maintains. But the concept is still hard for many people.

“Public health is so abstract. Growing up, I didn’t know public health existed,” Kim-Gibbons said. Today, she says, the concept is a lot less baffling.

Public health is a growing field, and I do think that a lot of that is the result of the pandemic.

In fact, her daughter and her friends—all seniors in high school—talk about becoming epidemiologists. “I didn’t even know what an epidemiologist was when I was her age.”

As a newly minted MPH graduate, Kim-Gibbons went to work for the International Rescue Committee in Thailand, where she worked with refugee populations from Burma as a community health education manager.

“That experience was as magical storybook as you might imagine,” she said. She lived in a little teak house and trained community health workers from Burma who were living in camps in Mae Hong Son in northwestern Thailand, near the border with Burma. To get to the camps they had to travel by jeep—a ride that could take anywhere from one to five hours, depending on the rainy season. “The mud was so bad, I remember pushing the car once and the mud sucked the shoes right off my feet. I never saw my shoes again.”

Growing up in different countries with very diverse friends, Kim-Gibbons was instilled with a respect for different cultures. But developing a curriculum for health trainers who came from different ethnic groups and beliefs required her to put that understanding into practice every day.

A lot of the refugees they served came from indigenous, traditional hill tribes, some from a culture with animist beliefs. “Someone would come into our clinics covered in chicken blood and feathers. It was their way of protecting themselves,” Kim-Gibbons said. “We realized they have no reason to believe this shot or white pill will help them. They would say, ‘she got sick from bad air.’ That’s not so different from germ theory.”

Kim-Gibbons worked with their beliefs to try to introduce some basic knowledge of body and anatomy—like handwashing and toilet use. For hill tribe people who moved around a lot, the latter was not a common practice. It became a necessity once they were living in a refugee camp, three meters from the next family.

After a three-year stint in Thailand, Kim-Gibbons returned to New York, where her sister and parents were living. But her work as the training director of a new refugee health program at Columbia University’s public health school, running training programs for public health professionals working in complex emergencies all over the world, kept her on the road 25 weeks a year.

“We did training courses in Bangkok, Bosnia, Kenya, Kosovo, South Sudan, Uganda, year-round. I tell people I was based at Columbia but there was a suitcase by my front door. I would come home, empty and refill it,” Kim-Gibbons said.

After four years of globetrotting, Kim-Gibbons was ready to hang her hat somewhere more permanent. She transitioned out of her job at Columbia University to work at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx in the Adolescent AIDS program, and then to a national children’s nonprofit focused on pediatric primary health care in deeply underserved areas.

But while the work was rewarding, Kim-Gibbons missed the global aspect of her public health work.

That led Kim-Gibbons to EngenderHealth, a global organization that aims to expand access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. She stayed for seven years, and during the last four focused on developing new programs, securing new revenue and maintaining a focus on gender equity.

“The theme that runs throughout my career is a focus on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable,” Kim-Gibbons said. “In many contexts, this is women and girls.”

In 2017, Kim-Gibbons joined Vital Strategies, where she splits her time between programs and fundraising as vice president of public health programs and partnerships, melding her programmatic experience with her business acumen.

One of the many hats she has worn at Vital was as director of the Women’s Health Program, where she focused on data quality for neglected reproductive health indicators and policies in Rwanda, Uganda and Bangladesh, as well as other general gender equity programming. “While there’s a lot of funding on maternal and reproductive health, there is so much of the power dynamic that is missing from programs and effective solutions,” said Kim-Gibbons. “In many countries there are investments in women’s clinics and safe birth, but you have to make sure these programs are building towards equity.

“I was really lucky to land at Vital Strategies. My toolkit of experience is diverse—both operational and programmatic,” said Kim-Gibbons. “When I started at Vital I was the swing lady, supporting nine programs. I’d jump in and work in various management and operational ways. I still keep a foot in the door across general program work in the division—and I really hope I’m able to help those teams in whatever capacity they need.”

“I’ve always liked a day of variety, and I’ve never been bored,” said Kim-Gibbons. “I don’t think I could have spent 30 years of my life in public health if I weren’t continually fascinated and challenged.”