From Liberia to MSUM to Yale: Joseph Lewis's journey of resilience, hope, and academic triumph

Joseph Lewis’s journey from a remote farm in Liberia, West Africa, to the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus to the corridors of Yale University demonstrates his academic prowess and achievement. More importantly, it is a testament to his resilience, determination, and the unwavering hope of his beloved mother.

Living in a world scarred by civil war and plagued by disease, Joseph’s early years were marked by hardship and uncertainty. He is the oldest and only son in his farm family, yet his mother deeply rooted in him the need for education. That's how he became the first in his family to attend college.

His mother’s enduring belief in the transformative power of education ignited a spark within him. After the civil war, his mother encouraged Joseph to move away to live with an uncle so he could get an education. At age 10, he stepped into a school for the first time.

“For the longest time, I went just to impress my mom. Anything that made her happy was my definition of education,” he said.

He graduated from high school but missed the graduation celebration because of the Ebola outbreak. His love of learning inspired him to pursue higher education beyond Liberia. At age 21, Joseph ventured into the unknown, landing in Moorhead, Minn., and at MSU Moorhead, where he knew family friends. The culture shock was palpable, from the weather to the food, but he embraced the changes with an open mind and a resilient spirit.

Faculty mentorship encourages eyes on the prize

Joseph appreciated MSUM’s tight-knit community and the meaningful faculty connections that continue to this day.

“I am who I am today to some degree because of the opportunities MSUM provided,” Joseph said.

One of Joseph’s most important connections was with Professor Jitendra Singh, his academic advisor, personal cheerleader, and ardent supporter.

“A vivid memory of Jitendra is him running to catch up with me on campus. He reminds me that I haven't attended an advisor meeting in a long time. I told him I had already figured out my classes. He looks at me and says, ‘Sometimes good news is worth sharing. You don’t have to have concerns to come by. Just come and say hi and catch up.’ He’s one of those people who is always there. He firmly believes in his students,” Joseph said.

So, when Joseph started looking into graduate school, Jitendra encouraged him to keep his eye on the prize and consider Ivy League schools.

“I’m pretty sure he started working on my recommendation letter to go Harvard or Yale before I started writing my statement of purpose. That's the type of person Jitendra is, and that’s what I mean when I say coming to MSUM is indeed a rewarding experience that doesn't end after four years; it goes with you,” Joseph said.

Joseph was admitted to four graduate programs, receiving a generous scholarship to attend Yale and an assistantship that began his second semester. He competed against many students, all with solid GPAs and GRE scores and myriad extracurricular activities. But Joseph’s story of being a first-generation international student living through civil unrest and a plague clearly demonstrated his grit and heart.

“Two things I hate are civil war and disease. So, I told my story from that perspective, as someone who has lived and witnessed firsthand the consequences of diseases on the life of people we love, and how this education could prepare me to be of help.”

Healthcare Management & Leadership

Joseph graduated from MSUM in May 2020 with a major in health services administration. He missed the graduation celebration because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“My undergraduate degree in health services administration is rigorously rooted in health policy making and harmoniously overlaps between disease prevention and policy,” he said. “My background and experiences at MSUM set me up for success at Yale School of Public Health – not just as a student but also as a graduate teaching assistant.”

Joseph Lewis at Yale

Yale exceeded his expectations, with students and professionals converging from around the world to enrich the learning experience. Expert professors and world-renowned guest lecturers enlightened his view of championing public health.

Joseph received his Master of Public Health in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases from Yale School of Public Health in May 2023.

Serving through public health and social change

Joseph is now a Divisional Infection Preventionist for CHI Health, a subsidiary of Common Spirit Health. Through policymaking and consultancy, he works with hospital systems in four Midwest states to prevent hospital-associated diseases.

“My education in health administration at MSUM combined with my graduate degree in epidemiology have been pivotal in preparing me for this role,” he said. “The world needs disease experts — as evidenced by what we witnessed during the COVID pandemic. Infection prevention is the field where we use expert judgments to prevent communicable diseases and help keep patients, healthcare staff, and community members safe. What could be more rewarding than that?”

As a lifelong learner, Joseph doesn’t rule out the idea of one day getting his Ph.D. But for now, he’s focused on advancing his career and beginning his life with fiancé Jessica Robles, a fellow Yale classmate.

In the meantime, he continues demonstrating his grit, humility and heart through volunteer work editing admission essays and college applications for students in Liberia who want to pursue college in the United States. As he sets his sights on a future dedicated to public health, Joseph inspires others to dream big dreams.

“In my native language, we say it is the unasked responsibility of whoever goes ahead to prepare the way for others to follow. I am humbled by this opportunity and rewarding experience that I get to help show others the path to college.”

Healthcare Management & Leadership

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