Graduate Stories

Marleise Brosnan

Project Director, Elder Workforce Alliance
Washington, DC

My decision to leave a successful career in the corporate sector was inspired by several personal and professional health related advocacy experiences more than ten years ago. I stepped into my first advocacy experience quite by accident twelve years ago. In my role as HR Director for John W Henry & Company—I acted as patient advocate to an employee who fell ill to a rare fatal disease, Wegener’s. I spent six weeks in the intensive care unit of Norwalk hospital and during that experience I became intimately aware that there were people going to work every day who made a profound impact on the lives of others. I made a vow to myself during that life altering experience that when my son graduated from college—I would make a change—to be one of those people.

My involvement with my family and the complications of my now deceased father’s advance directives and removal of life support legalities, further emboldened my desire to change careers to being a conduit for those not always in a position to be able to represent themselves (similar to my roles in HR). Most recently and throughout my graduate school experience I was a part time family caregiver to a very close family member who lost his 5-year battle with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.)

In June of 2007, I resigned my position as Head of Human Resources with Macquarie Holdings USA and commenced my graduate studies with Sarah Lawrence. My initial ideas about health advocacy centered on working within or creating programs that provided individual or local community assistance to seniors and/or the disabled. I had individual advocacy at heart. As my coursework, readings, writing assignments, interactions with professors and internship experiences evolved, my energy, interests and written projects gravitated toward macro solutions and initiatives that provide a public policy, legislative, governmental or large-scale approach to providing the greatest good to the largest number.

As my desires and interest in public policy emerged and ripened I asked for an internship in Washington DC and the Health Advocacy program made this a reality for me. I left my life in New York in June of 2008 for an internship with the National Patient Advocate Foundation and never returned.

I  consider myself extremely fortunate to have been offered the position of Project Director at the Eldercare Workforce Alliance ( in August of 2009—only a few short months after obtaining my Health Advocacy masters degree. EWA is a diverse consortium of 29 national organizations—representing consumers, family caregivers, the direct-care workforce, providers and healthcare professionals—joined together to address the immediate and future workforce crisis in caring for older adults. The Alliance was founded by lead grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John A. Hartford Foundation.

I am truly sincere when I say—I would not be where I am today without the education and opportunities afforded me by Sarah Lawrence.

Mary Tierney

Independent Geriatric Care Manager and Patient Advocate

"Increasing numbers of people are living to advanced ages in the United States. Most older people prefer to remain in their homes as they age, but that may be possible only with help from family and friends. In many cases, with or without family assistance, other supportive services may be needed. For those who can afford the fees, which are not covered by insurance, the services of a geriatric care manager (GCM) may fill the bill. While there are numerous large geriatric management companies doing business in the New York metropolitan area, I chose to go into business by myself.

My journey to geriatric care management actually began with a Certificate in Gerontology from Marymount Manhattan College. One of the instructors in the program was a GCM and the description of the work she did interested me very much. Then I met a wonderful Sarah Lawrence graduate who told me about the Health Advocacy Program. In a flash, I knew the next door had opened for me.

I have been asked if I could have started my business without attending the Health Advocacy Program. My response is a resounding "NO." The program's leadership and encouragement, the knowledge and confidence gleaned from teachers and colleagues, and the connections and the networking have been invaluable. And more than 80 percent of my clients have come through referrals from people I met through the program. The Health Advocacy Program gave me the confidence to go out into the world and reinvent myself!"

Isela Chavarria-Leslie

UN Refugee Agency in Europe, Africa and the UN Refugee Agency Headquarters in Geneva

"During my two years at Sarah Lawrence, I always maintained my commitment to the disenfranchised by ensuring that my internships contributed to communities through public health outreach in bilingual settings. I worked in the New York City Department of Health with youth from the Bronx, with Medicare recipients to help them navigate the system, and through the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation with pregnant women on maternal-child health. Working with specific populations such as women, children and the elderly, both at home and abroad, gave me the opportunity to help them meet their needs. Whether I'm working in a refugee setting or back in New York, these three groups of people have always motivated me to go beyond my job descriptions.

The Health Advocacy Program gave me the opportunity to continue to map out my own professional plan. I left New York for the Sudan in May 2006. I have just completed my tour as a Community Services Officer in Sudan. The eclectic diversity I have seen here in Sudan has led me to dub it the "New York of Africa." It is most humbling to be able to work for the UN Refugee Agency. The refugees, returnees, and other people of concern have touched my professional and personal lives in a most humbling way. They are some of the most resilient and brave people, particularly the children."

Pat Banta

Program Analyst (Policy Analyst), DHHS Inspector General's Office

"I'm a Medicare specialist. I've also been involved in bioterrorism preparedness. Our charge is to make sure these programs are run efficiently and effectively and to safeguard the underserved and the Medicare population. It's a wonderful way to advocate for health care consumers and have some impact.

I really appreciated the teaching style at Sarah Lawrence. I thought the seminar approach was wonderful. I was never bored. In fact, I miss the seminars. I find they really keep you fresh and make your approach to things more unique. It's a wonderful learning environment.

The Health Advocacy students are usually very accomplished people who had incredible prior careers. Your colleagues and alums are very accomplished individuals. That's good to have. If you need to pick someone's brain, you have great resources.

I was a critical care nurse for 27 years and I loved nursing. But I always wanted to do more. I was active in quality assurance, risk management, and clinical trials. Before the program, I thought of myself as an RN. After the program, I thought of myself as a researcher who wanted to commit to providing better health care for consumers. The program assisted my transition from being a nurse to being a different kind of professional with a different set of skills.

Having Sarah Lawrence on my resume put me on a new level. I'd say, ‘I'm a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence', and doors would open. I can be an advocate for patients in a whole new arena and I'm very, very happy about that. I applied to Pfizer for a grant and Sarah Lawrence helped with the grant writing. The comptroller went over the budget, and I used Sarah Lawrence graduate students to help with interviews and tests. I appreciate the support I got. I wanted to do different things, and the program was very flexible."

Helene Lefkow Aaron

Corporate Compliance Officer, Mental Health Association of Rockland County

"The Mental Health Association of Rockland County is an affiliate of Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association), the largest non-profit organization in the country dedicated to addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness. MHA of Rockland was founded in 1951 and opened the first mental health clinic in the county in 1954. Since then, the MHA has grown to include over twenty programs and services. It's my job to make sure that all MHA programs are in compliance with all federal, state and local laws and regulations, particularly those of the New York State Office of Mental Health and Medicaid. More than that, it means that I must make sure that we are doing right by our clients.

I bring a unique perspective to my job—that of the "consumer." Having dealt with my own mental illness for many years, I always look at a situation from the client's point of view. In a public mental health system where patients can often get lost in talk of budgets, liability and turf wars among competing interests, I feel I bring a much needed balance, even if in a small way, to how MHA delivers services. Going through the Health Advocacy Program, with its emphasis on the patient, has only strengthened this stance."

Ethlouise Banks

Patient Representative, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Corrective action is at the heart of Ethlouise's patient advocate work. At her hospital, patients are not always able to advocate for themselves effectively; they need help making their voices heard. "When I can help with something really egregious, like educating a doctor or nurse who didn't treat a patient right," Ethlouise says, "that makes it all worthwhile."

In the course of her daily work, Ethlouise also helps patients understand and make decisions about research protocols, investigates problems, and educates people about how to navigate the health care setting.

"Sarah Lawrence taught me how to dig—for information, explanations, answers—and get to the bottom of things," she says. "I learned how to get to the root of what people mean instead of settling for what is on the surface. I also learned listening/sympathetic and scientific skills, as will as how to carry myself in a professional manner so others treat me with respect.

Jane Nyce

Executive Director,  Staying Put in New Canaan

"When I started at Sarah Lawrence, I had no expectation that I would work in community advocacy. The Health Advocacy program opened my eyes to the range of areas where we might tackle health issues and forced me outside my comfort range to try new arenas through my internships.

I started as Executive Director of Staying Put in New Canaan in October. The goal is to provide the practical resources to allow seniors to live confidently and safely in their community as they age. The concept is otherwise known as "virtual retirement" community and in the health care literature as "aging in place."  I like the name "do it yourself" retirement community best. The offer for this position stemmed directly from working with this start-up as my final Sarah Lawrence internship, at which point I was asked to apply and interviewed along with over forty other candidates for the job. In retrospect, this program is a perfect fit with my degree in Health Advocacy and my prior 25 years in business. It gives me the opportunity to use my project management experience to organize over 100 volunteers, contract with numerous service providers, create an operational resource center, and most importantly, reach out personally to the over 150 members as needed. I have responsibility for working with members of the board on the business plan, budget, communication pieces (brochures, quarterly newsletters, newspaper articles and website), and for creating links to local services and speaking to groups of potential members or other town organizations."

Omega Bugembe

"I worked for a year in an administrative capacity in a labor and delivery unit and found out that there was a lot horribly wrong with the health care system. I saw a lot of inequities. That's when I got interested in health advocacy. When I read the catalogue description, I thought, 'This is exactly what I want to do—to change the health care system.'

They didn't give me all the answers I was looking for because there isn't one fix. There's no one answer. But they give you the tools and they expose you to situations that are real and to people who have made some changes in the system. Then you have to carve out a path for yourself to see where you want to advocate and how.

I liked the program's practicality. Having a science background, everything was very theoretical. I liked a program where they discussed actual issues and looked at suggested solutions, practical solutions.

It opened my mind to things I'd never heard before, other alternatives and thinking about issues.

My dreams are big—going home to Uganda and creating a health care system. It's a third-world country and one of the poorest and there are so few physicians and so many people that need care. People are dying from very treatable diseases. If I get hired by a big organization like the UN or the World Health Organization, I can use that clout to get changes to happen in Uganda.

I looked at public health but the Health Advocacy program is more focused toward change. I felt that this was more perfect for what I wanted. I know these tools and skills will help me wherever I end up."

Joyce Jacobson

Health Administrator for the town of Lyndhurst, NJ

"When I entered the Health Advocacy Program in September 2005, I pictured myself becoming a patient representative in a hospital setting: a champion of the medically needy, a protector of patients and a crusader against insurance companies. Since my previous career had been in the medical field as a physician assistant, I was aware of deficiencies in patient care. For over 20 years, I had practiced neonatal medicine; I was ready to contribute to patient care in a new way.

While I was nervous about returning to school after a 25-year absence, the Health Advocacy Program provided much guidance, support and direction. Every class, paper and project added a new layer of knowledge. Each internship gave me advocacy skills. However, it was a first semester class, Community Health, which served as the catalyst to my current position as the Health Administrator of my home town in New Jersey.  As Health Administrator, I advocate at both the community and individual levels and serve as a health resource for our residents. In addition to work on emergency preparedness, childhood vaccinations, restaurant inspections and communicable diseases, I reach into the community to advocate for specific health issues, addressing senior groups, updating the town's web page, and writing articles and letters for local newspapers. By joining Bergen County's Task Force to Increase Access to Health Care, I have been able to collaborate with various agencies to facilitate the enrollment of children in New Jersey's health insurance program, NJ FamilyCare.

The Health Advocacy Program allowed me to view the health field through a different paradigm. I learned the importance of knowing the issues, networking, developing skills, having confidence, being available and keeping an open mind. The Health Advocacy Program has led me in directions I never imagined. The field of health advocacy can be what each advocate makes of it."

Julie Buyon

Palliative Care Patient Advocate, Bronx-Lebanon Hospital

"Dr. Joseph Sacco was a guest speaker in my Models of Advocacy class. He had done some remarkable work with sickle cell patients at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital and struck me as a uniquely compassionate and patient-centered physician. I thought of him when it came time to start my Health Advocacy Program fieldwork. He had just started a palliative care program and was generous enough to allow me to create an advocate role within the program. Palliative care is not about saving lives—it is about healing those who get sick and stay sick or die. It supports seriously ill patients from the point of diagnosis throughout the course of their illnesses. It may be provided concurrent with other medical treatment, including curative treatment. It provides a sorely needed continuity of care.

I had not had a particularly strong interest in palliative care, but I did firmly believe in patient autonomy and I had an intuitive sense that autonomy was often compromised at the end of life. To my surprise, I discovered my calling working in direct patient care with these seriously ill people and their families. My position as Palliative Medicine Patient Advocate was first supported by a one-year grant from the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, which generously supports many programs to improve the health care of New York City's elderly. My work during that first year convinced the hospital that patient advocacy in palliative care provided a unique benefit."

Jane Nadel

Consumer Coalition Coordinator, U.S. Cochrane Center, Brown University

"I was a lawyer who represented local unions in negotiations and arbitrations. The program brought together my advocacy with my recent interest in health care. I loved it. It was fascinating and stimulating.

I think of it as an intellectually safe experience. I felt free to explore whatever I wanted to explore in the context of the courses and I really loved that about it. It's interdisciplinary, so I had a chance to explore a lot of different topics. My other academic experiences were in a more traditional, authoritarian mode. You didn't get to explore in a very freeing way. You didn't question too much. Sarah Lawrence is very egalitarian. I like that kind of atmosphere. It helped me to grow and think about a lot of ideas I was interested in exploring. The program validated that interest.

Sarah Lawrence was such a positive experience in terms of relationships with people. People come to the program motivated by personal experience and that creates a common bond. A lot of people came after other careers and were shifting gears, so people had a lot of experience that they brought with them. I found the people very thoughtful and everyone really participated.

I love the fact that Sarah Lawrence encourages writing. It turns out that writing is a very good way to synthesize and clarify what you are learning. I didn't realize how much the seminar experience would be a real advantage in terms of my experience.

Jessica Miller  

Patient Representative, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

"I came into the Health Advocacy Program wanting to expand my knowledge of sociology from a public health standpoint to eventually use this knowledge to do policy level research or, even better, to be involved in formation of healthcare policy. Basically, my ideal was to take the micro patient experience and make it into macro level change.

Although I have been successful in this pursuit, like many other Health Advocacy students I found myself taking a very different path to that end than I had imagined. As a result of my internship experiences I found myself being drawn towards the direct patient advocacy opportunities available. I realized that through working with patients I could be most effective in empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their health care and in fundamentally helping them become their own advocates in the current confusing health care system. My job as Patient Representative at MSKCC is a dynamic and diverse one that poses more challenges and rewards than I could have ever imagined as I sat in my graduate classes at Sarah Lawrence. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I have learned is that we continue to grow after our degrees are awarded; we build upon the knowledge we gained as we continue in our careers."

Yvonne Bokhour

Founder, Sweet Water Health Advocates, LLC

When I arrived for orientation at Sarah Lawrence’s Health Advocacy Program, I felt like a babe in the woods, despite lots of experience in business and even grassroots advocacy. My first reading list, not to mention initial interactions with teachers and classmates, opened my eyes to the wonders of the field: ardent, intelligent, persuasive people, determined to make a difference in a complex system.

With each class I took my confidence increased and my perspective expanded. Sarah Lawrence provides incredibly rich instruction; advocates are immersed in every aspect of health care (from physiology to ethics to policy) so they emerge fully aware of their work’s implications.

For me, learning to convey this intricate wisdom in a practical manner—one that educates, inspires, and moves the public and policymakers—has become a defining mission. Since my graduation, I’ve acquired many of the tools needed while practicing health care communications.

Now, knowledge amassed before, during, and after my time at Sarah Lawrence is driving my business, Sweet Water Health Advocates, LLC. Sweet Water advocates for both people and causes through research and communications services. We strive to relieve suffering in individual patients and promote health in society as a whole.

Our clients include patients struggling with health conditions, personal and professional caregivers working on others’ behalf, and fellow advocates determined to advance public health initiatives.

Listening carefully to patients and their caregivers, we develop personalized action plans that organize, educate, and prepare them to face health challenges. Our intimate knowledge of patient needs in turn inspires compelling research and communications materials for use by practitioners, non-profits, and other advocates in their efforts to improve human health.

I am so grateful for my education at Sarah Lawrence, which gave me the understanding and also the inspiration to proceed on this path.

Fadya Casseus

Contract Manager, Community Service Society Medicaid Education Choice Project

I work with community organizations to educate consumers about Medicaid and how to make it work. I completely love what I do. I feel at the end of the day that I am helping people. If the people I train help other people to understand the Medicaid program, that's one less person that falls through the cracks.

I was a nurse for two and a half years and was tired of being a floor nurse. I wanted to do something to help the community but I didn't have a name for it. Then I learned about the Health Advocacy program at Sarah Lawrence.

My first week in the program was really scary. There was an ex-doctor, an ex-lawyer, all these professionals who were already established. But there were only 15 people in each class and we got to know each other pretty well.

I came from a big college with auditorium-style classes. If you got to know one professor pretty well, you felt lucky. It took me a long time to call Marsha Hurst by her first name. Everyone was on a first-name basis and everyone was learning from each other. Marsha was really great at fostering a sense of community within the program. When you graduated, you weren't just friends with one or two people. You knew everyone. There was a camaraderie.

You can use a Health Advocacy degree to go in so many different directions. The degree doesn't tie you down. One classmate is a patient representative at Sloan-Kettering. Another one works in a sickle cell education program. I got interviews just because people wanted to know "What is this Health Advocacy degree?" It gave me a foot in the door to let them get to know who I am.

Before the program, I was a bit more closed because I had been in a big school. I felt kind of lost. I work better in an environment where it's more one-on-one. You can hide in a big class and not get involved. This program forced me to get involved and participate and I think that's great."

Lois Saxelby Steinberg

Westchester Program Director for the Medicare Rights Center

"When I read the Sarah Lawrence brochure about the Health Advocacy Program, I knew this was it. Like most of the students in my class, I knew exactly why I wanted to be a health advocate. I also knew my goal was to train others to be health advocates for themselves and others. I realized early on that I was programmed by my mother to be a rescuer: to speak up in the face of injustice and to take care of people who, for one reason or another, could not speak up for themselves. I speculated that many of the skills honed in my previous work and life experiences would be transferable to health advocacy.

Seniors Out Speaking on Medicare (SOS Medicare) launched in the fall of 2001 when we trained volunteers age 60 and over to give Medicare Minute presentations on Medicare rights and benefits to seniors throughout the County, mostly at senior centers. The Medicare Minute is a short, concise announcement about a new or important aspect of Medicare. SOS Medicare is now in its seventh year. I oversee a program with more than 50 volunteers, who reach between 1500 and 1600 people each month. When the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit, known as Part D, began in 2006, our volunteers conducted 120 hour-long educational seminars on the new drug plans, reaching over 7,000 people. They provided one-on-one counseling to another 3,000. They continue to provide such counseling today. Our newest initiatives a series of interactive advocacy training workshops around topics such as Speak Up to Your Doctor and How to Be Safe in the Hospital. You might say that we're training a lot of people to be trouble makers."

Paula Rapp

Emergency Room Nurse

"I discovered that I really enjoy writing. I did an internship with Mamm magazine, an advocacy magazine for women with breast cancer and other reproductive cancers. I also like legislative agendas, and I interned with the Connecticut Health Policy Project.

I was searching for a long time for something and I didn't know exactly what it was. I just happened to stumble upon this program. Once I found it and read about it, I said, 'This is what I want.' I think the program is fabulous. I've been in a hospital for 10 years and I wanted something larger.

The nice thing about the program is that you can really morph it into what you want to do with it. It doesn't shunt you into one category. I liked everything—the classes and all the professors. It's perfect for someone who wants exposure to a lot of different subjects.

The nice thing about Sarah Lawrence is that it's very small, very personal. The setting is really conducive to understanding the subject in depth. You get to express your thoughts every week."

Melville Finkelstein

Enrollment Specialist, Medicare Demonstration Project

"I always wanted to go into health care, but I never did. I worked in accounting, sales, and owned my own business. I gained a lot of confidence from the program at Sarah Lawrence. Sarah Lawrence is a different kind of education. You sit around tables and you have discussions and do presentations. I never did that as an undergraduate or in my career. It helped me gain confidence within myself—speaking to people, communicating, and things like that.

The Health Advocacy Program was a well-rounded program. I learned about all aspects of the health care system—law, economics, ethics. Ethics was fascinating. History was really fascinating. I wrote a paper on Civil War narratives, which was exciting. I got all these Civil War narratives from all over the country. Narratives of doctors and soldiers, and how they set up hospitals.

The most important thing I learned was that informed consent is one of the most important things that people need to know about. Informed consent is where it's at in advocacy. People have certain inalienable rights that have to be honored.

Everyone should have an advocate. That's the bottom line."

Read more about Mel's experience at Sarah Lawrence College.

Frances Culp

Senior Health Program Planner, San Francisco Department of Health, Office of Policy and Planning

For Frances, putting health advocacy into action is all about keeping the needs of her city's residents front and. "The public health mandate can never meet the needs of everyone," she says. "But nonetheless, I have the perspective of prioritizing residents' needs. People understand and sense that, and I have a good working relationship with other advocates and with the community."

Frances came to the Health Advocacy Program because she wanted a broad, multi-disciplinary approach, and she's still proud to characterize herself as a generalist. Her daily work includes getting health insurance to those who need it, implementing San Francisco's Health Care Accountability Ordinance, and developing a Health Care Access Booklet.

"The Health Advocacy Program helped me understand the health care system in all its complexity," says Frances. "As advocates, we want big changes all at once. But the Health Advocacy Program helped teach me how satisfying it can be to figure out what can actually be done right now, how to produce some tangible results at the end of the day while still maintaining a bigger perspective."

Constance Peterson

Administrative Manager and Patient Services Specialist, Emergency Department of New York Presbyterian Hospital Cornell Weil Medical Center

Constance Peterson has had a varied career path since graduating from Sarah Lawrence College's Health Advocacy Program in 1994. After working for six months for a community-based organization providing services to people with HIV/AIDS in Chicago, Constance moved back to New York in 1995 to develop a Patient Representative Program for the Emergency Department at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Constance's new position offered her the opportunity to put her diverse advocacy skills into action. She was able to combine her knowledge about program development with her understanding of what a patient-sensitive environment would look like in the context of Emergency Medicine. Today, Constance position has expanded to encompass all the "front door" activities of the Emergency Department. She supervises a Registration staff of 13 and more than 60 volunteers, and touches the lives of more than 55,000 patients passing through the Emergency Department annually. She also has a faculty appointment in the Cornell Medical College Department of Public Health where she is involved in teaching a variety of courses to medical students including cultural competency, medical ethics and patient advocacy in Emergency Medicine.

Reflecting on how the Health Advocacy Program prepared her for a career in patient advocacy, Constance notes that she graduated with a fund of well-grounded knowledge in diverse areas which are used in daily interactions with patients, hospital administrators, health care providers, and other advocates outside the institution. "The Health Advocacy Program prepared me to work on all kinds of levels, from communicating with patients and families, helping them negotiate the health care system, to looking at the structure of a hospital system and identifying barriers that impede or obstruct the delivery of patient center care and assessing the role of the institution in the community."

Career Paths

Health Advocacy graduates have gone on to work in the following places:

  • American Cancer Society, New England Division
  • Andrus Children’s Center
  • Bergen County Division of Mental Health
  • Cancer Information Service (NCI), Fox Chase Cancer Center
  • Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC)
  • Genetic Alliance
  • Helen Keller Services for the Blind
  • Leukemia Society of America
  • March of Dimes
  • Medicare Rights Center
  • Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
  • Mental Health Association of Rockland County
  • Merger Watch Project
  • Montefiore Medical Center
  • Montreal Children’s Hospital
  • Mount Sinai Medical Center
  • National Patient Advocate Foundation
  • New York Citizens Committee on
  • Health Care Decisions
  • New York-Presbyterian Hospital
  • The Office of New York State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried
  • New York City Department of Health
  • Palliative Medicine Consultation Service, Bronx Lebanon
  • Planned Parenthood
  • Sanctuary for the Dying
  • San Francisco Department of Public Health
  • United Cerebral Palsy
  • United Nations Refugee Agency
  • Westchester Medical Center
  • White Plains Hospital