Nine years ago, Alexis Cohen spent most of the 13-hour plane ride to Japan hysterically crying.
“I thought: What am I doing? I don’t speak a word of Japanese and I’m going to be all alone for a year,” says the Long Island native who is the NYU's 2012 Commencement student speaker.
The trip was a bold venture, but it was the post-collegiate experience that made the most sense to her—eventually. Fresh out of Northwestern University’s film school in 2003, Cohen wasn’t interested in the Hollywood dreams that occupied many of her classmates. Instead, she had opted to spend 12 months teaching English in a town outside Tokyo. She landed the job two weeks before the start date, so it all happened in a flurry. But once she settled in, her spirits soon changed.
“It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Cohen, who became a sort of cultural ambassador in her neighborhood, leading Christmas carols at the local schools (even when she didn’t know the words) and answering endless questions about American customs. She also gained new respect for what it meant to be an outsider: “I learned to appreciate what it’s like to always be the different one.”
That insight has carried her through years of tireless work in global health promotion. And while she graduates today with both a D.D.S. from the College of Dentistry and an M.P.H. from the NYU Master of Public Health Program, her legacy stretches far beyond the confines of any classroom. From advocacy work with the World Health Organization’s World Dental Federation, for which she participated in dis- ease prevention meetings at the U.N. General Assembly, to founding Gambatte—an online cultural photo exchange that will soon sell handmade products by African women—Cohen has been managing and administering oral health care for children and adults from Grenada to Ghana to Guatemala.
So how does one get two advanced degrees while regularly traversing the globe? It helps that Cohen only sleeps about four or five hours a night. And she budgeted that extra waking time with expert skill throughout her years in grad school.
“I’ve become really good at focusing on mini-goals,” she explains. “You have to know what the next priority is, and always be working toward that.”
Despite her ability to put things in context, Cohen has been challenged by living in between two very different worlds. Dental school, she notes, is an extremely regimented, structured experi- ence, while the global public health realm is often a grass- roots experience, requiring creative solutions at every turn. Her ability to be effective in both spheres has not gone unnoticed. Among her many honors, Cohen received the New York State Dental Foundation Dean’s Award in 2011, the ADEA/Johnson & Johnson Healthcare Products Preventative Dentistry Award in 2011, and the NYU President’s Service Award in 2009. She was president of the College of Dentistry’s Student Council Executive Board from 2009-11, and served two years as chair of the school’s Student Ethics Peer Review Board.
After graduation—and maybe a few minutes of rest— Cohen plans to travel in Israel and throughout Africa and South America before start- ing a pediatric residency in a hospital or school. Her goal is to develop more preventa- tive programs since, as she notes, serious dental problems are, mostly, avoidable. In the meantime, she’ll also con- tinue working with children in underserved areas. It remains her greatest reward to see how improved oral health can affect the general well being of communities.
“The kids were afraid of us when we first started going to Grenada—they thought we were just there to perform extrac- tions,” says Cohen. “Now they come running up to us, smiling, when we arrive.”