Steve Kodish has always been quite proficient at balancing athletics and academics.
At Spring-Ford High School, he was either the captain or co-captain of the football, wrestling and baseball teams, and an honor student before graduating in the top five percent of his senior class in 1999. At James Madison University in Va., he wrestled his way to the NCAA Championships, earned Academic All-American honors, and was selected the college's Outstanding Kinesiology Student of the Year before graduating with a 3.7 grade-point average and earning his bachelor's degree in kinesiology in 2003.
And even though he had exhausted his athletic eligibility, he was still balancing sports and the books for two years at Arizona State University. He was a volunteer wrestling coach for a high school that won the state title, taught undergraduate classes at the university, and was named ASU's Teaching Assistant of the Year before graduating with a 3.79 grade-point average and earning his master's degree in kinesiology in 2005.
'That's when I decided to take a one-year hiatus from academia to travel the world and try to expand my world view,' Kodish recalled earlier this week. 'The one year turned into four years…'
Forget the GPS, too. Kodish's desire to see the world took him to Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Vietnam, Korea, China, Nepal, Philippines and Japan – where he actually lived for three years, working at various schools, including the University of Tokyo.
And Japan was also where he came to realize, or committed to, the calling he was so desperately seeking – working in public health.
Actually global health … and fighting hunger.
So, in 2009, Kodish applied to and was accepted into the renowned International Health Ph.D. program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His studies and, more important, his accompanying work with the World Health Organization and the United Nations World Food Programme, have taken him to Switzerland and Italy in Europe, as well as to Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal and Mozambique in Africa.
With the World Health Organization, Kodish was part of a six-member team conducting research on HIV. A year later, he began working with the United Nation's World Food Programme on the recommendation of Dr. Joel Gittelsohn – his doctoral advisor at Johns Hopkins University.
'I opted to study kinesiology as an undergraduate and graduate student because of my strong interest in sports and science,' Kodish explained. 'I believed kinesiology offered a nice combination of those two disciplines. But as a graduate student, I learned a research skill set that exposed me to not only aspects of kinesiology but also to public health.
'It was while I was working with the communities in Arizona that I realized maybe my professional interests lie more in public health than in kinesiology. That's why I eventually chose to pursue my doctorate in public health. I still draw from what I learned in kinesiology, especially within chronic disease prevention programs, but now from a public health lens which tries to address health disparities at the population level.'
Kodish got an up-close look at the disparities during his first assignment with the World Food Programme – being part of a research team at the notorious Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
'Living at Kakuma Refugee Camp was not somewhere you'd vacation,' he explained. 'Kakuma in (the native language of) Swahili means 'nowhere,' so you can imagine how remote it is in the Turkana district northwest of Kenya near South Sudan.'
Two years later, while in Ethiopia, the conditions may have been even worse.
'When I was living in far western Ethiopia for a child health project I didn't have running water for a month,' Kodish said. 'It was the most challenging environment in which to work that I had ever been in.
'But these conditions come with the territory of low-income settings, which are often lacking basic infrastructure, governance, even rule of law. They are challenging environments to work in, but they are more challenging environments to grow up in and get out of as a youngster.'
* Kodish, the son of Nancy Kodish and the late Ray 'Bear' Kodish – both of whom were teachers in the Spring-Ford School District – is currently living in Pemba, Mozambique, located in the northern Cabo Delgado province of Africa.
And, while oh so close to receiving his doctorate degree, Kodish's work with the United Nations' World Food Programme – the largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide – is most important to him.
'I find the world incredibly inequitable,' he said. 'And inequity is different from equality. When I refer to inequity I mean fairness, or a lack thereof. I find it absolutely unjust and unacceptable that some people are born into situations that foster their maximum growth and development, (while) other people are born into situations of starvation and human rights offenses.
'I am not an idealist. I know that within a capitalistic system there will be inequality. However, within that same system, I do not think there needs to be inequity. People, regardless of the situation in which they were born, should be afforded the same human rights and opportunities to succeed. I really believe that, which is why I have begun to pursue it by working in low-income settings around the world with the United Nations.'
Kodish's days are long … and physically as well as mentally challenging.
He is up by 5:30 in the morning. After a few hours working on his computer, he travels a half-hour to meet his team of local data collectors. Together, they spend hours in the villages of the Cabo Delgado province on nutrition-related work. He doesn't get back to his home until evening.
'My food options are a lot more limited, too,' Kodish explained. 'Dinners are usually rice and goat meat, or nsima (boiled corn flour) and a green vegetable.'
Because Pemba is bordered by the Indian Ocean to the east, Kodish said there are other times he'll have some type of fish for dinner.
He also tries to get out for a run – before the sun sets – to keep physically fit. Then, after another hour, two or three on his computer, he retires to a bed covered with an insecticide-treated net to keep away malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Kodish has been in Mozambique for just under seven weeks. He is working on a project to develop a nutrition intervention trial for the World Food Programme that will provide a number of interventions to children under two years of age as well as to pregnant and lactating women.
'In nutrition, the first 1,000 days of life are incredibly important,' Kodish said. 'From inception to two years (of age), there is so much of a child's growth and development that can be irreversibly (positively or negatively) impacted through effects on his or her nutritional status.
'So the United Nations World Food Programme, in addition to the rest of the global nutrition community, is working hard to address this window of opportunity – the first 1,000 days of life. It's those types of projects I'm currently working on.'
Kodish is helping pioneer the effort, too.
'Right now the four-year project is just getting started in each of these country settings,' he explained. 'I'm here to help provide initial inputs for the trial itself.'
Some days aren't always as easy as others, though.
'Different situations offer different emotions,' Kodish explained. 'I will work on a project and be oblivious or immune to the real surroundings of the project. Other times, a particular instance or event may have an (emotional) effect. I can remember working with a data collection team comprised of primarily Somali nationals, who fled the civil and political strife of the now-failed state of Somalia. I met the guys who were the same age as me but didn't have the same fortune I had to have an education.
'During my research training, however, these guys – my age-mates – made the most insightful, thoughtful comments that rivaled any of those that I had heard at Johns Hopkins. It really underscored the game of chance that life really is; how these gentlemen, who clearly had the aptitude to do whatever they wanted in their lives in any other situation, were hitting a very low glass ceiling of opportunity based on the unfortunate circumstances into which they were born.'
Nonetheless, Kodish's commitment to them – to global health – is unwavering.
* It seems as though Kodish has been helping others for a long, long time.
At Spring-Ford, he was a two-way starter and helped the Rams' football team to a share of the Pioneer Athletic Conference title in 1998. He was named the league's Defensive and Two-Way Player of the Year as a senior. In wrestling, he helped the Rams to a pair of PAC-10 titles, was a two-time District 1-AAA champion and a two-time Southeast Regional qualifier. And in baseball, he was part of the Rams' drive to one league championship and a berth in the state playoffs.
He continued wrestling at James Madison, where he lettered for three seasons and was an NCAA qualifier at 197 pounds. He also volunteered a lot of his time with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Special Olympics programs, which JMU administrators recognized by naming him one of two student-athletes – from all 28 of the school's athletic teams – to represent JMU at the NCAA Advisory Committee meetings.
And when he headed west to Arizona, his commitment to help others didn't stop. He worked to promote the health of vulnerable groups, including volunteering at Hunkapi – an equine-based therapy program for troubled youth – and was involved in chronic disease prevention projects for children on the Gila River and Salt River American Indian reservations. And it was so ironic his work as a volunteer coach at Marcos DeNiza High School helped the wrestling team pin down that state title.
Just a couple of years ago, Kodish joined former JMU wrestling teammate and still good friend Patrick Diaz in the 155-mile ultra-marathon through the Gobi Desert in China to raise money for lung cancer research. Diaz's father had recently died of cancer. Kodish's father was in the final weeks of his battle with the dreaded disease that would take his life as well.
'I wasn't built to be running long distances,' the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Kodish said. 'But (Diaz) helped motivate me the entire way. It was a tribute to both of our dads, and a way to raise money for lung cancer research.
'With that motivation in our back pockets and drawing from our thick-headed wrestling 'do not quit' mentalities, we gave the race our best shot. It was an amazing experience, one that I will never forget, and one that I will probably never replicate. However, I spend a lot of time looking for new (ultra-marathons), so I never say never.'
Or kind of what Kodish learned years ago … at home, in the classrooms, and on the athletic fields.
'It's hard to tease out what exactly helped me to always work hard at academics,' he explained. 'I don't know if it was a discipline learned from sports, the emphasis placed on studying by my parents, or something else (like) high-quality teachers or a generally-safe and supportive environment in which I grew up.
'I do know that my diligence in school was probably shaped by a combination of those factors I was fortunate enough to experience. In terms of athletics, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about some aspect of my career. And whether it is staying at the office until late at night or waking up at 5 a.m. to prepare for a call, I always think back to high school and college sports. As a student-athlete you never question making those sacrifices, and I really believe that when you get older those lessons and work ethic still stick with you. I know they have with me.'