By the time she was 18, Mara Hansen ’06 had already acted in numerous plays. She had stage combat experience, and she had earned a theatre scholarship from Willamette University. In her mind, her destiny as a stage actress was clear.
But then she took a medical anthropology course with professor Joyce Millen, and Hansen began to reevaluate her goals.
“I was looking at the inequities in the world, especially as they relate to health, and I was super inspired,” Hansen says. “Joyce’s vision for what we should do and could do as students was far beyond what anyone had ever asked me to do previously.”
Then, after graduating from Willamette, she served in the Peace Corps in Morocco and earned her master of science degree from Harvard University School of Public Health.
Today, Hansen is engaged to be married and works to improve primary health services in under-resourced countries through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The best part of my job is getting to work with and learn from grantees,” says Hansen, a program officer. “I’m just so inspired by the dedication, passion and expertise of our partners. It’s amazing.”
For Hansen, transitioning from theatre to public health was a night-and-day switch. But because of her background, she was able to view her chosen discipline in a nonconventional way.
“Studying medical anthropology was almost like doing a character study,” she says. “When studying characters, you ask a lot of questions about who they are, what motivates them, and how they interact with the world.
“In medical anthropology, I learned to ask the same questions, but focused on how different people experience their health, illness and healing and the structures that shape these processes.”
Inspired to take action, Hansen helped found a chapter of the Student Global AIDS Campaign at Willamette. The national grassroots movement, led by students, strove to spread awareness and end the HIV and AIDS pandemic.
“Joyce told me and other students that there was no reason why we shouldn’t take action and be impactful. She asked us to consider what we could personally do to address the inequities in access to HIV treatments.”
Public health became Hansen’s passion. With Millen’s guidance, she applied for and won a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant to travel to Guatemala, where she studied malnutrition among children. And later, again with Millen’s encouragement, she joined the Peace Corps and worked for the Ministry of Health in Morocco.
There, she helped a village nurse in a small dispensary.
“I lived in a rural, isolated community of maybe 100 houses. Most of them were made of mud. There was no running water and very few toilets,” Hansen says. “It was a rustic location.”
From that experience, Hansen took away two lessons. First, she learned that making decisions on funding and programming for health is incredibly difficult without accurate data. Second, she learned to approach development and cultural differences with a great deal of humility.
“I lived with a conservative Muslim family in a compound because I needed a well nearby. In that family, most women didn’t leave the house,” Hansen says.
“That paradigm was villainized by many because it encouraged women to live a very sheltered existence. Yet, the care and compassion shown within that structure felt the most like home to me. From them, I learned a lot about not judging a book by its cover.”
After the Peace Corps, Hansen earned her master’s at Harvard and worked on health-related projects in the Mississippi Delta and rural India. Then, in 2011, she was hired by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.
“In my job, I work with organizations who are improving the quality of primary care services available to the poor by ensuring providers have quality of drugs, proper training, management and more,” she says.
Millen, Hansen’s longtime mentor, says she’s proud of how far her former student has come. If anything, she says Hansen’s determination to help others has intensified with time.
“Even as an undergraduate student, Mara displayed all the telling signs of a dynamic leader who had the potential to go out in the world and effectuate real, broad and positive change,” Millen says.
“That she is doing so now is marvelous, but not altogether surprising. Her current work is simply a continuation of a drive and a commitment that began long ago.”
Courtney Paine, Hansen’s best friend, agrees. The two have known each other since Opening Days during their freshman year at Willamette. Paine says Hansen is one of the most dynamic and passionate people she’s ever met.
“People are engaged and interested in Mara, whether she is playing a role in a production or speaking about the need for better screening systems for cervical cancer,” says Paine, a social worker in Seattle. “She has the ability to make people care about what is important to her.”
Hansen says it’s difficult to truly understand whether her day-to-day efforts are making a difference in the lives of the people she serves. Yet, her drive to improve health care services around the globe remains strong.
“I choose to embrace what I believe to be right and I try to pursue it without imposing unnecessary limits on what is possible,” Hansen says. “Joyce taught me that.”