Life’s a beach for public health student Jonathan Robinson—literally. The moment the San Clemente surfer plunged into the frigid Pacific to pass a lifeguarding test at age 17, his passion became his profession.


Jonathan Robinson, left, assists a lifeguard training in Cebeci, Turkey, with Australian and Turkish first responders. (Photo/Ramazan Uzmez)

More than a summer job

Seven years of protecting the Orange County coastline groomed Robinson to be where he is today—working toward his dream career in emergency medicine with a global health focus. “Being a lifeguard was all I ever dreamed of since learning to swim,” he said. “It was not just a job; it embodies who I am and drove my passion to progress within the emergency medical system to better care for patients.”

The aspiring physician is pursuing his Master of Public Health degree in global health leadership online through the Keck School of Medicine of USC while traveling the world for the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA), working as an emergency medical technician at a children’s hospital and volunteering as a youth program director and CPR instructor.


Jonathan Robinson, center, pretends to be a distressed swimmer during a mock rescue with Thai ISLA course participants in Phuket, Thailand. (Photo/Henry Reyes)

Taking time to give back

Volunteer service has always been a part of Robinson’s life. “Growing up, my family instilled in me the obligation to give back to our community,” he said, recalling serving in soup kitchens, volunteering for city events and traveling with his father, who helped build programs to train community leaders. “We always put the needs of others first.”

So, when a fellow lifeguard told him about ISLA’s international volunteer lifeguarding work, he jumped at the chance to share his skills overseas.

Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. All economies and regions face burden and death from drowning; however, low- and middle-income countries account for more than 90 percent of unintentional drowning deaths.

Dedicated to “open water lifesaving” and preventing drownings, ISLA “aids people in championing the aquatic safety situation in their own coastal communities,” according to its website. The organization supports lifeguard training programs and exchanges, equipment donations, purchasing connections and technology to sustain a global network of lifeguards that share information, techniques, stories and culture.

Robinson’s first ISLA trip, to Nicaragua, was a collaboration with the Red Cross. He and other ISLA team members slept in a warehouse alongside Nicaraguan lifeguards and members of the police force, fire department and military.

“Our shared learning was tested each day on the beaches with thousands of people in our waters,” he said. “I was surrounded by a network of global first-responders and lifeguards, united in their mission to combat injury or death from drowning.” After that trip, he was hooked.

Now, as a watch commander, Robinson spends less time scanning the horizon these days in order to work with ISLA administrators to help plan projects, facilitate interagency coordination, identify goals for response teams and organize trip logistics.

“Google Translate has become my best friend in receiving and sending emails to Turkey, Thailand, Chile, China, and Nicaragua,” Robinson said. But software and language skills only go so far in handling the multifaceted challenges of international work.

“The skills I have learned from the MPH program in performing cultural assessments and consulting with local experts has helped fill in the gaps,” he said. “At ISLA, we never assume we are the sole experts in host countries; we are not there to teach or to lead, we are there to partner, collaborate and to empower.”

This month, Robinson will travel to China and return for a third time to Nicaragua to assist training local lifeguards and support their beaches. In the last year he led international teams to Turkey and Thailand, where they assisted training for lifeguards in drowning prevention, open water rescue and medical skills.


Thai participants sit in on an ISLA lifeguard training session in Phuket, Thailand. (Photo/Julia Reyes)

Flexible, applicable education

Between work hours, local volunteer work and global trips, Robinson is careful to stay on top of his coursework. “The beauty of being an online student is self-managing my time for studies,” he said.

That flexibility is a cornerstone of USC’s online MPH degree. “Many of our online MPH students, like Jonathan, are working professionals, proving you don’t have to put your life on hold to get a prestigious graduate degree,” said the program’s director Shubha Kumar, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School. “It is challenging to juggle school on top of a career and public service, but we work with each student individually to ensure they stay on track with their goals.”

USC was Robinson’s top choice for pursing a graduate degree. “I sought a graduate program that could strengthen my professional skills and build connections within the public health sector,” he said. His mentor, Mellissa Withers, PhD, MHS, associate professor of clinical preventive medicine, has connected him to fellow Trojans working in his field and advises him on career goals. “Having a faculty adviser like her is why I chose USC’s MPH program and why being a member of the Trojan Family is different than any other.”

After he finishes his degree, Robinson plans to specialize in emergency medicine while leading research on protocols and policy reform. He advises all students looking to study and work in public health to prepare to be transformed by the people they work with.

“The communities and programs you partner with will show you the resiliency of the human spirit,” he said. “Public health is as much about promoting healthier behaviors and outcomes as it is about being advocates for individuals who just want to be heard.”

— Larissa Puro