Q&A: Alex Wheatley '16 *20, SINSI Graduate Scholar

July 29, 2019

Alex Wheatley, a member of Princeton's Class of 2016, is now in her last year of the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI) Graduate Program. Established to prepare students for careers in the federal government, the program consists of a two-year MPA program at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, paired with fellowships in the federal government to provide practical work experience.

Wheatley recently completed a rotation with the Anchorage, Alaska-based Department of Health and Human Services, Indian Health Service.

Why did you choose this particular fellowship?

The Alaska Tribal Health System is a model for health systems development. It has produced incredible health outcomes over the last 20 years, and is looked to by other regions within the IHS system as the “future” of Tribal healthcare. Other countries and Tribal communities also look to the Alaska Tribal Health System as a model for indigenous and holistic health care. 

Within my MPA, I’m on the development track and am seeking a certificate in health policy; this fellowship was the perfect opportunity to explore federal support for a developing health system within the United States. I was curious to see the system up close and to understand the nature of federal support for this Tribally-managed health system.

What are some of your responsibilities?

My primary project was a white paper on the planned expansion of the Alaska Community Health Aide Program (CHAP). Health aides are primary care providers in rural Alaska. They’re paraprofessionals recruited from the community, and the program has had a hugely positive impact on rural villages across the state. 

The program is now expanding to Tribal communities outside of Alaska as IHS develops a national CHAP. I wrote a white paper to review the key components of the Alaska program insofar as they may influence national program expansion, and to highlight questions/concerns among Alaska Tribes and Tribal Health Organizations with regard to program expansion.

Outside of this white paper, I assisted with the Tribal Negotiation processes for compacting and contracting Tribes; spent ten days in Cordova, Alaska working with the health center for the Native Village of Eyak on an immunization campaign; and engaged with Tribal representatives from across the Alaska Tribal health system to better understand the system’s many components.

Wheatley with coworkers at the Ilanka Health Clinic in Cordova, AK. 
Wheatley (center) with coworkers at the Ilanka Health Clinic in Cordova, AK. 
What has been your favorite moment so far?

As part of my CHAP research, I interviewed a health aide in a rural Alaskan village. Her name is Gladys. Gladys had been the primary care provider in Allakaket—located on the Arctic Circle, accessible only by small plane, with a total population of roughly 150 people and winter temperatures that reach negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit—for 35 years. I loved hearing her stories.

What from your Princeton experience (i.e. classes, activities, skills you developed, extracurriculars, etc.) do you find yourself drawing on most during your experience?

Two approaches have guided me through health development projects while in my fellowship years. I learned both from my global health coursework at Princeton. First: to understand any health problem I must look geographically broad and historically deep. 

Second: every action is rational from an internal frame of reference. If I can understand these things, I may be able to contribute to efforts to solve the problem. Listening skills and humility are valuable. 

My Princeton years have included coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, anthropology, history, creative writing, economics, policy, statistics and psychology. The variation in coursework, as well as years of networking and functioning in interdisciplinary contexts, has contributed to the skill most relevant in my fellowship years: the ability to communicate clearly. 

In an email, a meeting, a phone call, a one-page brief or a 60-page paper—what’s the audience? What will they hear (no matter what I say)? What do they need to take away from our interaction? How much time do they have to digest my message? To communicate clearly, I need to understand these elements and be able to mold my knowledge into the format that best fits the situation.

What recommendations do you have for other students considering this opportunity?

Don’t be afraid to chase what interests you. I advise you to embrace the SINSI fellowship as two years without an upward trajectory. Use them to explore, to start afresh (multiple times), to find a niche in public service that suits you. It’s a flexible and supportive community that wants to see you excel—don’t be afraid to let yourself do so in ways you might not have expected. Like, for example, moving to Alaska.