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By Victoria W Sharpnack on November 27, 2018

Sometimes following your passion means your journey is not always a straight path, and UC Davis Alum Tooka Zokaie wouldn’t have it any other way. She began her higher education journey in a predentistry program, but soon found that being a “white coat” was not for her. While volunteering in her program, they had to turn many patients away due to lack of time to treat them and a shortage of oral healthcare professionals in low income communities. Her passion came from seeing a broken system and wanting to be a change-maker. After earning a B.S. in Human Development and a Master’s of Public Health at UC Davis she is now in the prestigious Medical and Dental Integration Fellowship Administrative at Kaiser Permanente, piloting programs to integrate oral health into primary care settings.

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Tooka Zokaie took her Human Development major research with Dr. Gerald Kayingo and applied it in her Public Health Masters Program at UC Davis. (Courtesy Tooka Zokaie)

“I decided to follow a path where the system would be better for patients and providers both.” - Human Development major '17, Tooka Zokaie

Tooka entered UC Davis as a transfer student with an interest in research related to aging and working with older adults which stemmed from the close relationship she shared with her grandmother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease when Tooka was 13. They would spend time together reading poetry and telling stories. When she passed away while Tooka was in high school, she missed her grandmother’s company and began to volunteer at a senior care center, something she would continue as a UC Davis undergrad. Learning about the care and healthcare options for older adults sparked an interest in supporting dignified endings for this powerful part of the population.

But like we said, not all paths are straight. Luckily, the Human Development major housed in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Science is broad and flexible and allows students to do more than just science or humanities. For example, students can see how human psychology is impacted by the biology of our brains. It is a great major for students who like to question. Intro courses expose students to a lot of different areas, and upper division classes dive deeper into subjects, so you can define your passion.

For Tooka, a turning point was SPH 101, Introduction to Public Health, an elective course in the Human Development Major (and now a Minor). For many of us, healthcare often brings up the image of the “white coat,” the doctor, the direct provider, but after her Public Health course she was able to see there are healthcare positions that aren’t “white coats.” She knew she wanted to be a change-maker at a systems level and she now had the word to describe her passion – Public Health.

Hands on experience with a Human Development major 

hands on experience with a human development major
UC Davis Human Development major Andi Vilaboy reads to children in the green room at the Early Childhood Lab School on the UC Davis campus. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Every student must complete at least one practicum, and can intern for credits. Tooka found the Adult Development Lab and worked with Dr. Lisa Miller on nutrition. From there she learned that many older adults lack access to oral health services, which tied back to her realization that simply being a dental provider wouldn’t tackle the bigger issues she saw. Through her interest in older adults and work with Dr. Miller on nutrition she found that Dr. Gerald Kayingo at Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing was doing work with oral health and older adults. The great thing about so many of our faculty is their enthusiastic willingness to mentor undergraduates, so don’t be afraid to reach out and express your interest in their work.

A Master's Program in Public Health

careers in public health uc davis
A Public Health nurse provides a vaccine during a UC Davis free flu shot clinic. (UC Davis) 

The logical next step for Tooka was a Master’s in Public Health program, which would give her the deep education and credentials to do work in the field of Public Health. The UC Davis MPH program was her choice because she could complete the program in one accelerated year. As an added bonus, because she did her undergrad at UCD she could be a TA in the Human Development program during her Master’s program. By making connections with her major she was able to get a stipend, give back to students, and ease a financial burden.

She was also the first UC Grad Slam finalist from the School of Medicine with her talk “At the Mouth of Heath Access.” She credits being able to start research as an undergrad, as it allowed her to have a research paper with findings to present and encourages more students to compete.

By following her interests, even when those interests took her down a different path, opportunities arose. She is now in a prestigious fellowship through the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) which aims to give fellows 3-4 years of experience in one very accelerated year. She is working with the Medical and Dental Integration unit using evidence-based research to show how oral health can be effectively integrated into primary care services.

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