Water, sanitation and hygiene may not be captivating topics for conversation around the dinner table, but they are serious concerns in many parts of the world, including the United States. NMU alumna Nicole “Niki” Weber of Washington, D.C. has committed her career to addressing these issues through humanitarian service and education.
Since graduating from NMU in 2009, Weber has applied what she learned in and out of the classroom in a variety of contexts. She completed internships with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mercy Corps in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the International Federation of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She worked on Guinea-worm disease eradication while living in rural Chad. She managed internally displaced persons camps in the DRC, then led the hygiene and behavioral change component of an urban water and sanitation program in Eastern DRC. She was involved in the cholera response in Zambia.
The global statistics Weber cited at the awards brunch are sobering. More than 70 million people are displaced by conflict, persecution and national disasters; more than 700 million don't have access to safe drinking water, some of whom live in U.S. towns; and more than 2 billion don't have a toilet, latrine or somewhere to safely—and with dignity—go to the bathroom.
“My work is tiny piece of that massive iceberg of the global issues we face,” she said. “Sometimes these numbers are overwhelming, but I think about the stories and the people I meet day to day and it keeps me going. At the end of a project in West Africa, midwives were telling us they didn't even realize that by not using safe water, women were getting infections during childbirth. Now we're able to treat the water and keep moms and infants healthy.
“In DR Congo, where there's currently a deadly Ebola outbreak, we worked with 6,000 volunteers to keep moms and kids safe from common diseases. There are many problems like this, but when we come together as a community, it helps make us confident and optimistic that we can move forward and fight some of these problems, such as climate change, which are facing us today and making the world a complicated place.”
As a senior specialist at Save the Children in the nation's capital, Weber provides technical assistance and capacity strengthening support in water, sanitation and hygiene across a number of partners and countries. Since 2015, she has also served as an adjunct instructor with the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University. She teaches global health, hygiene promotion, and social and behavioral change courses.
Weber said her path to a global health career started at NMU. She earned a bachelor's degree in community health education and Spanish, as well as a French language certificate.
“My Freshman Fellow mentor, the late Louise Bourgault, was working in global health and encouraged me to pursue that pathway and gave me a good piece of advice: learn French,” she said. “Professors Mary Jane Tremethick, Patricia Hogan and Barb Coleman inspired me through their practical and science-based approaches to public health. I find myself modeling their teaching styles today at Drexel.
“The Superior Edge and Student Leader Fellowship Programs encouraged us to not just think about service locally, but what's happening around the world and how we're all really connected in this one environment we live in. And John Weting [retired NMU international programs director] was very supportive when I was at Northern, and afterward during my Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship.”
The scholarship enabled Weber to travel to Geneva, Switzerland after graduating from NMU. While there, she completed a master of advanced studies in humanitarian aid. Weber later completed a joint master of public health through universities in Spain, Poland and France.
After seven years of education and service overseas, Weber returned to the United States in 2016. She completed a research fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she also co-authored a chapter on water, sanitation and hygiene in the textbook titled Health in Humanitarian Emergencies: Principles and Practice for Public Health and Healthcare Practitioners. She also provided technical assistance in Zambia, Mauritania, Togo and Bangladesh.
Weber said her focus on improving lives around the world traces back to her Northern experience, including her work at the NMU Volunteer Center and community service with the Marquette Mountain Ski Patrol.
“I really enjoyed my time here as a student. Every time I visit, I'm taken away by the beauty and friendliness of Marquette.”