Emily Nelson
David Scrivner

The COVID-19 pandemic created numerous challenges for college students. And while that certainly was the case for John Dickens, it also led him to his next step in life.

“I was finishing up my political science degree when the pandemic hit, and it drove me to start thinking about what kinds of solutions we have to ensure this doesn’t happen again, or at least to the extent it happened,” Dickens says.

Dickens, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, will graduate in May with a master’s degree in public health with an emphasis in policy and move to Hawaii, where he’ll work with a public health policy center at the University of Hawaii to research and address rural public health needs.

His interest in rural public health started with a class with Keith Mueller, Gerhard Hartman Professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy.

“His focus is on rural health care, an area in which there is so much need for improvement,” Dickens says. “When I had to come up with a topic for a 15-page paper, I always came back to rural health care. I took that as a sign that it was something I should focus on and do full time.”

John Dickens

Hometown: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Degree: Master in Public Health (MPH) with an emphasis in policy

What’s next: Working with a public health policy center at the University of Hawaii to research and address rural public health needs

As he prepares to graduate, Dickens says he couldn’t have imagined where his college experience would take him.

“If you told me freshman year that I’d be moving to Hawaii to do rural health research, I probably would have laughed in your face,” Dickens says. “But I am so grateful that the people I met here and the connections I made and the experience that I got is leading me there, and I’m really excited for that next step.”

How did you choose Iowa and what are your earliest memories of campus?

My dad got a job at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital when I was finishing my senior year of high school, and we had a family talk about moving to Iowa City. At that point, I was trying to decide between the University of Michigan or the University of Iowa. I wanted to do my undergrad in political science and did some research and saw some awesome opportunities to work on campaigns in Iowa during the 2018 and 2020 elections. And when we came to visit here, I just loved the campus. I loved the feeling of being here.

One of the first things we did was go to a football game, and we were in the stadium and my dad was up on the top floor of the children’s hospital, and we were waving to each other. It was really cool.

What is your most memorable experience at Iowa?

My first day in Iowa City during orientation, my roommate and I decided to walk around Iowa City. We were walking through downtown, seeing the sights, when we heard this loud commotion coming from this community building, which I later found out was the Robert A. Lee Community Center. We walked in the front door, walked down to the basement, and there’s Bernie Sanders giving a speech to hundreds of people. And we just stood and watched it for a little bit. And as we walked out, I thought, “OK, so that’s what Iowa City is going to be like.”

Who are some mentors who have meant a lot to you during your time at Iowa?

There have been a variety of people who have helped along the way for whom I’ve been super grateful. During my time in the political science department, I got to work on Iowa law professor Christina Bohannan’s campaign for Congress. She was a fantastic mentor with insights into the political scene and what it means to be an activist in your community and take the next leap, and serving the people that you care about and the people that you live with.

Once I got to public health, Dr. Keith Mueller, who works on rural health policy, has been a great mentor. That is what I am planning to do once I graduate, so he’s been a great person to turn to when I have questions about job searches or specific topics in rural health care.

What’s your favorite place in Iowa City?

I love 9 p.m. Wednesdays at Micky’s Irish Pub, eating 68-cent wings and playing trivia. I have a lot of really good memories there.

What did you get out of your Iowa experience that you don’t feel you would have gotten elsewhere?

Iowa City seems big compared to the surrounding towns, but it’s still a relatively small community. I see people walking down the street that I recognize all the time. I think something that’s special about being here versus somewhere else is that you have an opportunity to make a bunch of meaningful relationships with people from all over the place as well as make a big impact on the people that you’re around.

What I loved here is I was able to work with city council members and state legislators to pass real bills. Bills and resolutions that were passed started with students and ended with real positive change in the community, which is something really special about being here.