Profile with Helen Jack

Helen Jack (New Hampshire & Pembroke 2012) is currently earning a second BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. She graduated from Yale University with majors in Biology and in International Studies and will attend Harvard Medical School following her time at Oxford.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Helen Jack: I grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire, which is a small, rural town. It was a great place to grow up. It’s really safe, and has really long unpleasant winters. There’s not much to do other than be outdoors, and I love being outdoors, going hiking and cross country skiing.

Rhodes Project:  What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Helen Jack: Right now I’m reading “The Fear” by Peter Godwin. It’s a journalist’s experience being in Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s reign of terror. It’s absolutely fascinating and incredibly well written, if very violent. And I’m going to Zimbabwe next week, so it’s particularly relevant.

Rhodes Project:  What’s playing on your iPod right now?

Helen Jack: I love Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band… I have terrible taste in music. I just want it to be as poppy and upbeat as possible.

Rhodes Project:  When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Helen Jack: When I was really little, I wanted to be either a tow-truck driver or a conductor. After that, I had a long phase of wanting to be a veterinarian. And for most of high school I wanted to be a professional actress. Starting pretty late in high school, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor, which is still what I want to be.

Rhodes Project:  Tell me a little bit about what you’re studying at Oxford.

Helen Jack: I’m doing a second bachelor’s in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. When I applied to the Rhodes, I proposed to do a one-year Master’s in Evidence Based Social Intervention, and my Rhodes Panel told me that was a bad idea and I should plan to stay for two years to do a second BA in PPE, a degree I had not even heard of!. I’m going to medical school after my time at Oxford, and PPE initially seemed unrelated to my interests. But eventually I really came around to it.  PPE explores big questions: Is there objective morality? Should the industrious sacrifice for the lazy and reckless? I write a massive amount, and I meet one-on-one with tutors for hours a week, and am getting pushed to think and write and cover material in a way that I never have before. I feel like critical thinking, reading and writing will in the long term bring a lot to the way I approach medicine, policy and systems design.

Rhodes Project:  What’s the best or most interesting thing that’s happened to you in the last year?

Helen Jack: The Oxford schedule has these 6-week-long breaks and my undergraduate housing does not extend over the breaks. I’ve taken advantage of the lack of housing to explore the world outside of Oxford..

I really want to learn Spanish because I hope to, eventually, practice medicine with underserved communities in the US, many of which are Spanish-speaking. Over one of the breaks, I spent 6 weeks in Guatemala living with a Guatemalan family and trying to do nothing but speak Spanish, memorize vocabulary, and study verb conjugations, Language learning is slow and frustrating, but so gratifying. I went barely able to conduct a conversation and left, able to actually converse with people.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?

Helen Jack: Stop trying to do everything and focus on doing what you’re really excited about. That’s something I didn’t do well in high school, and I’ve gotten better at doing since then. Learn how to say “no” to the things that you aren’t totally excited about.

Rhodes Project: What would an ideal day look like?

Helen Jack: At Oxford, It would start with a long run with a great running friend, followed some time spent in one of the beautiful libraries reading, writing an essay on something interesting. The ideal evening would be a dinner followed by long conversations over cocktails at the Duke of Cambridge. An ideal vacation day would be spent hiking – there’s nothing better than a long day of hiking.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Helen Jack: Developing mental health care in low and middle income countries. Mental illness is 13% of the global burden of disease. It has a huge impact on people’s lives and on developing economies, yet it gets only a miniscule amount of health and development funding and is ignored in many global health conversations. Ghana for example has 11 psychiatrists for 23 million people. That’s insane! There’s a massive treatment gap – at least 95% of people who need treatment aren’t getting it. And the psychiatric hospitals, where most mental health care takes place, can be just so depressing and scary: many patients are there for months on end, often just sitting in wards.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?

Helen Jack: I’m going to teach a course on qualitative research methods at the University of Zimbabwe. It’s a four-day course for medical students and faculty members wanting to do research in health. I’m really excited to teach because I think that health research is a big component of improving health systems, particularly in low-income countries. Although I’m really looking forward to it, it’s also terrifying and very intimidating to be teaching for four days straight to an audience of people who are probably more experienced in health care and are older than me.

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