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Rob Simmons: International Public Health Leader

Rob Simmons, DrPH, MPH, MCHES, CPH, likes his students to experience public health.

It’s not out of the ordinary for Simmons, director of the School of Population Health’s Master of Public Health program, to arrange for students to spend half a day with Philadelphia Department of Public Health inspectors as they make their rounds at restaurants throughout the city.

Or to lead a group of public health students to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional representatives during the National Health Education Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C.

“Public health is an applied science, so it is important to emphasize experiential learning as much as possible, taking concepts from the classroom and applying them in the community,” says Simmons, who has led Jefferson’s MPH program since 2007. “An essential part of public health learning is the active engagement of our students in their education, in applied research initiatives and in community service.”

In March 2012, Simmons received the Coalition of National Health Education Organizations’ Health Education Advocate Award at the 15th Annual Health Education Advocacy Summit in Washington. The award is given annually to a health education leader who has demonstrated outstanding advocacy skills and served as a mentor for others — a fitting tribute to someone who has dedicated his 40-year career to public health education, working with local and state government, community-based health organizations, private health foundations, healthcare organizations and, more recently, in academic public health programs. Fifteen Jefferson MPH students accompanied him to the summit.

“Dr. Simmons works tirelessly to help students achieve their goals,” says Manisha Verma, MD, MPH ’10. “He is determined to get every student motivated and passionate about population health.”

The annual advocacy trip to Capitol Hill is one of Simmons’ favorites. “This is a great learning opportunity for students to see how to apply some of the concepts and a framework for developing public health policy, and how you advocate for those things,” he says. “What the students learn is the importance of their beliefs and their voice. The result is that young people gain a lot more confidence in their roles as future public health leaders. It changes their perspective of their congressional leaders and their role in serving their constituents.”

A native of Southern California, Simmons began his public health career after receiving his Master of Public Health in health education from Loma Linda University School of Public Health in 1973. Simmons then spent several years working for San Diego County’s public health department in substance abuse prevention and poison control. He had a steady paycheck and lived within a block of the beach. But he felt there was something lacking from the “creature comforts” he was experiencing.

So he joined the Peace Corps. “San Diego was beautiful, but I felt there was something I needed to connect with. I really wanted to help others.”

He found himself in Colombia, working with the Secretary of Health in Medellín, the country’s second-largest city. He also ventured out into the rural areas, “the campo,” including spending a week helping another Peace Corps volunteer capture mosquitos for a malaria eradication program in the country’s densely forested and highly impoverished Chocó region. He was inspired by the positive attitude displayed by the people of the region, despite deplorable living conditions.

“That’s one of my main takeaways, coming back to the United States — you really appreciate all we have. We have so much, and I’m not sure we appreciate it as much as we should,” he says.

The trip to Colombia was life-changing in many ways, most notably because he met Roselena, the woman he would marry and raise three children with. The couple plans to retire one day to the foothills of Medellín, known as the “City of Eternal Spring.”

But one gets the feeling that Simmons will never really retire. Recently, he has expanded his work in global health, having been accepted as a Fulbright Specialist Scholar in Public and Global Health. The program sends U.S. faculty and professionals to serve as expert consultants on curriculum, faculty development, institutional planning and related subjects at overseas academic institutions for a period of two to six weeks.

Simmons recently returned from Mexico, where he attended the Fifth Inter-American Health Promotion and Education Conference and delivered a pre-conference workshop on public health policy and advocacy as well as two other presentations — in Spanish — to public health faculty and practitioners.

In August 2012, he’ll return to Universidad CES in Medellín as a Fulbright Specialist Scholar. Building on his previous trips to Universidad CES, considered the top health sciences university in Colombia, Simmons will provide training and technical assistance for program directors and faculty at Universidad CES and at the Universidad de Antioquia, the country’s only school of public health.

“Public health is wedded in a social consciousness of social justice, human rights and health inequities ... We’re working with people, systems and communities that have real challenges and needs, certainly here in Philadelphia. To do that work, you have to have a passion that you really want to make a difference.”

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