Mieko McKay ’01: Changemaker. World traveler. Community mobilizer.
Since its founding in 1813, Colby has been committed to its community—on the Hill, in Waterville, nationally, and globally. Members of the Colby community share many of Maine’s values: they have heart, respect individuality, are motivated, collaborate, and encourage each other to think big and succeed. It begins with the experience on campus and evolves into a network of innovative scholars, mentors, professionals, and global leaders—making Colby an inspiring and integral connection to the world.
For Mieko McKay ’01, being a changemaker, world traveler, and community mobilizer is an extension of her Colby journey. Since her time on Mayflower Hill, she has been fortunate to travel to countless cities and villages in approximately 70 countries. Most recently, her work in international development brought her to the Ivory Coast in West Africa where McKay reinforces the capacity of the local government and community stakeholders in social and behavior change to improve health.
McKay first fell in love with world travel while at Colby, spending two semesters and an extended Jan Plan abroad. She was introduced to the Peace Corps on campus and went on to serve two years in Senegal as a volunteer upon graduation. Since then, she has lived in three African countries in addition to several cities across the United States.
“Colby opened my eyes to adventure, setting me on an untraditional path that I didn’t expect,” McKay said.
Now a deputy project director for Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs (CCP), McKay drives community mobilization and advocacy interventions, as well as multimedia campaigns to inform the population on malaria and HIV prevention and treatment, as well as epidemics such as COVID-19. Her work is centered on building capacity to create solutions. By educating communities and leaders, she is strengthening the ability of the local government to successfully enact and sustain change.
CCP receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) including funds for the global health security agenda, which is dedicated to addressing emerging epidemics. McKay has been working with the Ivorian government to inform the population and influence behaviors to reduce the spread of COVID-19 since the pandemic outbreak began.
Before joining CCP in 2018, McKay worked for Save the Children. As a senior program officer, she was responsible for managing the nonprofit’s Africa and Caribbean portfolio under the Maternal and Child Survival Program.
McKay’s interest in social and behavior change took off while pursuing her master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins, which she viewed as a continuation of the enriching anthropology education she received on Mayflower Hill. Learning what motivates people to make decisions related to public health issues fascinates McKay. “Influencing behavior is at the foundation of development work and creating real social change,” McKay said. “A strong understanding of human behavior can lead to a much more powerful impact on a range of issues.”
Growing up in Texas, McKay envisioned attending medical school in her home state. But when her guidance counselor informed her of Colby’s Ralph J. Bunche Scholars Program, she considered deviating from her plan. The financial aid package sealed the deal for McKay, who chose to attend the small liberal arts college over 1,500 miles from home.
McKay’s diverse course load, including epidemiology, sociology, philosophy, and African studies, broadened her pathway. With a newfound curiosity, McKay pursued a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. “Colby’s liberal arts education expanded my world,” McKay said. “Maybe you don’t become an expert on everything, but you learn how to talk about what you know, and then to listen and engage with people on a lot of different levels. That’s critical for being successful in life.”
As a Colby student, McKay ran track, was a resident assistant, and worked as a dispatcher in the security office. She was involved in theater, fundraising, and SOBHU, now SOBLU or Students Organized for Black and Latinx Unity. She found comfort in the bonds she made at the then-newly built Pugh Center for Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “The Pugh Center shaped my experience. It’s something I will always value about Colby,” McKay said.
McKay advocates that Colby students should feel empowered to get involved and try new things. Spending time in Durban, South Africa; St. Vincent and the Grenadines; and Cuernavaca, Mexico exposed her to a myriad of cultures throughout her four years at Colby, allowing her to learn multiple languages and connect with people around the world.
“The magic is that you really can explore whatever you put your mind to. Campus is full of people, from classmates to administrators to professors, who genuinely want you to take advantage of everything the college has to offer academically and socially,” McKay said. “Looking back, it was a very free time in my life where I experienced a lot of personal growth and self-awareness while getting a great education.”
Read more stories about Colby alumni journeys here.
Photos by Benjamin Soro.