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A tale of two Mizzous: Public health student to speak about pandemic perseverance

May 6, 2024

Story by Ryan Gauthier

A student wearing a graduation cap and gown sits on steps
Mikayla Kitchen will be the featured speaker during the College of Health Sciences spring commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 11. Photo courtesy of Mikayla Kitchen

As Mikayla Kitchen winds down her undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri, she can’t help but reflect on two radically different Mizzou experiences.

Her freshman year was punctuated by masks, virtual classes, plexiglass dividers in the cafeteria and myriad other COVID-19 pandemic protections. But when she returned for her sophomore and subsequent years, Kitchen was able to see a completely different side of campus.

“Suddenly there are 30,000 people on campus, and all of them are trying to get Panda [Express] at the same time,” Kitchen said. “It was a shock. For the first month or so, a lot of us felt like freshmen all over again.”

While the transition from a pandemic-era college experience to a more traditional Mizzou campus was a shock initially, Kitchen said serving as a Welcome Week leader her sophomore year ended up being redemptive. She was able to guide incoming freshmen — as well as participate for the first time — through traditions like running through the Columns, painting the Rock M at Faurot Field, and enjoying Tiger Stripe Ice Cream from Buck’s.

“Experiencing all of those Welcome Week activities that we missed the first time around was a really sweet gesture for campus leadership,” she said. “It really set the tone for my second Mizzou experience.”

Kitchen, who’s graduating with a Bachelor of Health Science in public health, will touch on those experiences and more as the featured speaker during the College of Health Sciences spring commencement ceremony at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, in Mizzou Arena.

A passion for public health

Growing up in the small town of Pittsburg in southeast Kansas, Kitchen said she thought in a very systematic way. She was always taking something apart, building something new or tackling a new craft or activity.

“My mom and I would go to Michaels and get science kit after science kit over the course of the summer,” she said. “She would send me to science camps and Greenbush Camps because I was just insatiable.”

As she prepared to enroll in college, Kitchen decided she was going to focus on the system of the human body by pursuing a career in physical therapy. But after taking courses with College of Health Sciences faculty members Botswana Blackburn and Jenna Wintemberg, she felt pulled toward a different system: public health.

“Those classes absolutely changed the way I saw health care and public health,” she said. “Every day in class, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this makes so much sense.’ I fell in love with the prevention side of public health because I truly believe in going upstream, finding the root issue, and working to resolve it.”

Kitchen said Wintemberg and Blackburn quickly became role models for her, even if they weren’t always aware of it.

“Dr. Blackburn probably doesn’t know this, but I idolized her my freshman year,” she said. “And then I worked with Dr. Wintemberg on a tobacco cessation project, and she empowered me and pushed me through a lot of doors I probably shouldn’t have been in. They showed me how to lead with excellence in health care and were really humble in giving their platform to me.”

Blackburn praised Kitchen, describing her as someone who stands out for her intelligence, talent, and leadership skills.

“She is always willing to lend a helping hand to her peers and is known for her dedication to her studies,” she said.

A young woman holds up a graduation sash
Mikayla Kitchen

Wintemberg said Kitchen’s commitment to improving the health and well-being of others has been apparent in every activity she takes on.

“Mikayla stands out among other high-achieving students for her campus and community service, leadership and research,” she said. “Her motivation to the public health profession is exceptional.”

In addition to her bachelor’s degree in public health, Kitchen will graduate with minors in political science, leadership and public service, and constitutional democracy. She was honored this spring when the Mizzou Alumni Association Student Board selected her as part of the latest cohort of Mizzou ’39, and she recently was named undergraduate public health student of the year.

Making a difference through policy

Kitchen knew she wanted to make a difference in the world through public health, but she wasn’t sure about the exact path she would take to get there. She said public health is interesting because it combines hard science with humanities, enabling students to work in everything from epidemiology to health policy.

Her perspective changed after spending this past summer in Washington, D.C., as part of the Kinder Scholars D.C. Summer Program. Kitchen said those experiences encouraged her to focus on shaping public health through policymaking.

“Working on the policy side of things gives me a tangible way to change things for the better,” she said. “Whether it’s working as an attorney, litigating policy, providing counsel for a think tank, or working for a legislator, I want to change policy in ways that empower the people who are actually on the ground providing services.”

Although Kitchen intends to attend law school starting in fall 2025, she’s first going to take a year away from academia to gain some valuable experience with AmeriCorps. She hopes to eventually end up back on the East Coast, ideally working to shape health policy directly from Washington.

Regardless of where her path takes her, Kitchen will be a proud Mizzou alum. Tigers have a reputation that precedes them, she said, and that positive word of mouth reaches far beyond the boundaries of Columbia, Missouri.

“When I was in D.C., I really saw what makes us different as a university,” she said. “I was interning with students who went to places like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, and I arguably had more tangible skills than they did in the field. It says a lot about the level of excellence and discovery that we pursue at Mizzou.”

Featured in this post

Jenna Wintemberg

Jenna Wintemberg

Director of Undergraduate Studies (Department of Health Sciences) and Associate Teaching Professor

Botswana Toney Blackburn

Botswana Blackburn

Health Sciences Department Chair and Teaching Professor