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She vowed to help her home country of Liberia — York College is helping her do it

Cathy Cooper '19 stands in front of her childhood home in Liberia.
Cathy Cooper '19 stands in front of her childhood home.

Cathy Cooper was 9 when she left behind everything she’d ever known in Liberia.

Her and her mother traded familiarity in the West African country for opportunity by moving to America.

When she got older, she vowed one day, somehow, she’d find a way to make a difference in her home country.

Fueling her resolve

It was right there on Cathy’s application to the Graham Innovation Scholars program at York College of Pennsylvania: she wanted to change the healthcare system in Liberia.

Dr. David Fyfe remembers sitting in on her first-year seminar class and hearing about that goal.

“I just thought that was really incredible,” says Dr. Fyfe, director for global travel experiences with the Graham Innovation Scholars and associate professor of Geography for York College.

When Cathy was 15, her uncle, who still lived in Liberia, became sick. He was diabetic, and although his family had brought him to a health care facility to treat his illness, they weren’t able to care for him.

He died. He wasn’t the first, or the last, of Cathy’s family whose lives ended with similar stories.

Deaths that would have been preventable in America just weren’t in Liberia. Soon after, Ebola began spreading like wildfire across her home country.

The loss of her uncle and the Ebola outbreak fueled and focused Cathy’s resolve. Living in America had opened her eyes to opportunities that didn’t exist in Liberia.

“I was really able to find myself here,” she says. “And through that, I realized I wanted the opportunity to give back to my country.”

She decided she’d become a doctor and return to Liberia — that’s how she would make a difference.

The first steps

Part of the Graham Innovation Scholars Program is international travel, which helps students become better global citizens and pursue innovative and entrepreneurial goals.

After years of planning, Cathy and two other students traveled with Dr. Fyfe to Liberia last May through the Graham Scholars program to take the first steps into reaching Cathy’s goal. They connected with the National Public Health Institute of Liberia, interviewing health care professionals, administrators, and government officials in Liberia.

It was the first time Cathy had been back to her birthplace since leaving 11 years earlier.

The country looked different than she had remembered, except her childhood home. That remained untouched, unchanged.

She talked with the people there — doctors, administrators, officials — and asked them about their lives.

What did they need? How could things change? How could she help?

Hearing about and seeing the realities of life in Liberia broke Cathy’s heart.

After 14 days, she came home to York with renewed resolve to make a difference. So did Dr. Fyfe.

Returning to Liberia

York College’s connection to Liberia was born out of Cathy’s passion. Now, it’s expanding beyond her.

This May, right after her graduation, Cathy and Dr. Fyfe will return to Liberia with faculty from York College’s Nursing and Public Policy programs. They’ll be looking for opportunities for additional research and health care clinical work.

“This is a student-led, student-driven initiative,” Dr. Fyfe says. “That was what our goal, what our mission was for the Graham Program, for students to take the educational program and own it.”

Cathy is still amazed at the impact her dream is having on others. This upcoming trip to Liberia isn’t just about what she can do; it’s about what they can do together to help the people of Liberia.

“I’m still trying to pinch myself and realize that all this is going on just based on me coming into this program and following my passion,” she says. “It really helped me realize the importance of staying true to yourself.”

Cathy’s interviews in Liberia have led her to grow her ambitions even more. She still plans on returning as a doctor, but she also wants to build her own hospital and work through public policy to improve the entire Liberian health care industry.

She credits her success so far to the support and opportunities offered to her by York College.

“It takes a village,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for York College, I wouldn’t be the person or student that I am today.”