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Harvard Heptathlete – Meet Zoe Hughes

People warned me about the pitfalls of the NCAA system and Ivy Leagues too. “Oh you’re going to burn out, Ivy Leagues are for academics not sports, they only see you as points” okay but what are the options for unfunded low-income young athletes in the UK?”

Striking the balance of going to a University which allowed her to pursue her studies as-well-as sports is the reason why Zoe Hughes, multi-eventer for Great Britain didn’t hesitate to move over 3000 miles away after earning a scholarship at Harvard University.

“My track and all-round experience at Harvard was amazing. Coming out of the UK I found that I had a lot of unrealised potentials. I was able to tap into this as early as my first-year thanks to great coaching, facilities and medical support.”

Take our training room. Over 25 athletic trainers, certified in a range of therapeutic techniques, equipped with various machines. In the UK, I could barely afford a string of physio appointments. Even with the gracious support of GLL and RunForRun, once you account for competition and kit costs, there wasn’t much leftover.

Zoe recently graduated from Harvard with a BA in Neuroscience with a minor in Global Health and Health Policy plus a language citation in Spanish. For her minor, she conducted independent research on the effect of racial discrimination on health outcomes for the black British population.

Hughes noticed that there was a fountain of research on the effects of race on African American health, but less research has been done in the UK, an artefact of the misconception that racism in the UK isn’t rampant.

“I struggled in parts with gaps in the research, but in the end I was able to conclude that in the UK there is the same link between racism and health as there is in America.”

“Some people in Britain live in denial of the fact that racism does exist and the fact that there is very little research in the UK is linked to this. Researchers are reluctant to grapple with racism and delve into the consequences it has for black Britons.”

The Government published a report last month, stating that Black and Ethnic minority were more likely to be harshly affected by COVID 19 than White Britons.” COVID-19… did not create health inequalities, but rather the pandemic exposed and exacerbated longstanding inequalities affecting BAME groups in the UK” ( Public Health England , 2020)

“I threaded the unfolding coronavirus pandemic into my paper. I think it represented the first time for a lot of Britons that they were forced to consider racism as a possible cause for the harrowing statistic that Black people were 4 times more likely to die from COVID than white people.”

Racial health disparities aside, Hughes’ main career interest is global health. Her goal for the future is to make a large-scale change in global health in Africa.

“I have a lot of ideas, I need to narrow down. I’ve read policy briefs on all sorts of global health issues, read statistics that make me feel sick to the core. One such is that nearly 60 million children in Africa don’t have enough food. That one sticks with me.

It is entirely unacceptable that in the 21st century people are suffering from starvation. I think about how unpleasant I feel if I don’t eat for ten hours or so, then I consider that feeling strung out day after day and amplified by physiological things that start happening once your body enters a mode of starvation. Food insecurity is here too in the UK, although on a lesser scale.”

Last year Hughes went on a 10-week placement funded by the Harvard Global Health Institute, at the Perinatal HIV Research Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although she assisted in bio-behavioural research within the field of HIV medicine, her tasks were varied. A day that left a lasting impact on Zoe was a local community event she attended on African Youth Day. 

“The day was to celebrate children. I love taking photos so I went along with my camera and took photos for the event organizers to use on their website and for grant applications. A lot of my research can feel distant from tangible change so it was a nice break to do something concretely helpful, plus I loved the children I met as much as the camera loved them.”

“I loved South Africa. I loved being there and I loved my work. I made sure to take advantage of being on the continent. I visited Nigeria, the birthplace of my mother. It was a very meaningful trip. I feel like everybody who has family from Africa should go, I loved it.”

Due to the pandemic and a year of injury, Zoe has two remaining years of NCAA eligibility which she has ‘traded in’ for two years of an athletic scholarship at Duke University. There, she will be doing her Master’s in Global Health.

“Doing track and field has definitely made me a stronger person, I’m more resilient to challenges I face, off and on the track.”

“Track has challenged me way more intensely than academics. Academics are hard and demanding but in some ways simple. What you need to do to succeed is pretty clear. In track, I’ve had to be very creative and dig so deep sometimes, just to be able to show up at practice or get to the start line. The high’s and low’s I’ve been through with track are personal. A lot more lessons have come out of it.”

“Track has taught me a lot about who I am as a person.”

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