College to County experience opens unexpected doors for recent university grad with a passion for health

Created on 02/18/2020 by Andrea Coghlan

Julia Adebawo

Though Julia Adebawo is just a month-and-a-half into her new position with Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services, her experience with the County goes back half a decade.   

In 2015, when she was just a junior at Beaverton High School, Adebawo and fellow activists came before the Multnomah County Board of Commissionersto advocate for raising the smoking age to 21 and to speak out against the dangers of tobacco use.

When she looks back at that time, she remembers how scared she was, as well as how grateful she is to have had that exposure to County government.     

“When you’re 17, talking to government leaders is terrifying, especially if they might not agree with what you say,” said Adebawo. “But every time we spoke, the commissioners really listened to us.” 

These days, the recent college graduate is working as an Office Assistant 2 within the Director’s Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services. There, in addition to providing administrative support, she’s learning about the legislative side of County mental health services, helping to coordinate the activities of the Adult Mental Health and Substance Abuse Advisory Council, and actively involved in Mental Health and Addiction Services' equity team. 

Adebawo's new role continues to reflect her lifelong dedication to, and fascination with, health. 

“I was always that weird kid, that whenever I cut my hand or something would watch the scab heal,” laughed Adebawo. 

As a young child growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Adebawo said she regularly saw people fall ill to preventable sickness. 

But Adebawo says she won’t allow those childhood experiences to be used as a method for others to define her. Instead, she chooses to keep those memories to herself -- drawing from them as a source of personal inspiration.  

“More than anything, I’ve always innately wanted to help people. Medicine is a way to do that,” she said resolutely.

Fueled by her desire to make a difference and her inquisitive nature, Adebawo pursued -- and ultimately earned-- a degree in Biology with a Pre Med Option from Oregon State University in the summer of 2019.  

Julia Adebawo addressing the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners as a student health activist back in 2015.

Julia Adebawo addressing the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners as a student health activist back in 2015.

It was at that very school that Adebawo first heard about a professional opportunity to get her foot in the door at Multnomah County. In a presentation organized by Oregon State’s Black Student Union, former College to CountyCoordinator Allyson Spencer made a compelling case as to why students of color or low income students should participate in the program. 

The goal of College to County is to expose participants from diverse backgrounds to various County careers so they will consider Multnomah County for employment once they graduate. 

Students are selected based on their solid academics and leadership potential. Once chosen, they are given the opportunity to carry out assignments and develop the soft skills needed to be successful in the workplace. 

College to County has operated since 2010 and mentorship opportunities and student participation has grown from four participants to more than 100. Several students have found part-time employment during the school year and nine graduates have been hired into full time County employment.

Adebawo’s interest was piqued, so she approached Spencer.

“The conversation with Allyson was really encouraging,” said Adebawo. “She motivated me. We were able to talk Black woman to Black woman.” 

Adebawo spoke candidly with Spencer about the sense of isolation that came from being a woman of color in a field of study where people like her were not well represented. Spencer encouraged Adebawo to look to Multnomah County for inspiration and to seek out role models.

Adebawo took Spencer’s advice, and during the summer of 2018 and after graduating in 2019, learned the ins and outs of Multnomah County Mental Health and Addiction Services. She described her experience in the College to County program as a “gateway” to the division, where she was able to explore and gain perspective. 

In her first year interning, Adebawo spent time in community settings and got to see Mental Health Court in action, which piqued her interest in more opportunities to serve the public. In her second year, she spent her time learning about the division’s Direct Clinical Services, a unit that provides mental health support to young people and their families in early education. Not to mention the time Adebawo interned in the division’s Director’s Office and with senior management on projects. 

JB Brown, Children's System of Care Coordinator at Mental health and Addiction Services, has been in continuous awe of Adebawo as they’ve worked together during Adebawo’s journey from intern to permanent staff.       

“She is a natural leader, caregiver, and life-long learner,” said Brown of Adebawo. “I am so honored to get to work alongside her and continue to learn from her." 

It’s that previous exposure that’s allowed her to hit the ground running in her new, permanent role at Mental Health and Addiction Services. The work is fast-paced and fulfilling. Adebawo says she feels fortunate to have an even closer look at the specific ways in which the division serves County residents impacted by addiction and mental health concerns. 

That sense of gratitude regarding Adebawo’s involvement in County Mental Health is reciprocated from the highest levels of the division. 

“Julia gives me hope for the future,” said Multnomah County Mental Health and Addiction Services Director Ebony Clarke. “Her energy and perspective remind me how crucial it is that we do our due diligence in bringing along the next generation.”

“The insight she has in terms of people, culture and relationships are key elements we have to understand to do our work effectively,” said Clarke. 

Adebawo says she still seriously mulls over attending medical school in the future, but says she doesn’t want to pass up an opportunity to make an impact in the community, be exposed to even more careers in the medical field and -- more practically -- earn money.  

“I’ve learned I’m still young,” she said. “I don’t want to kill my curiosity.”  

When Adebawo thinks back on her College to County experience, one of the most memorable aspects was returning to the program that second summer in 2019. 

She attended a small pilot program hosted by County employees that centered on the experience of women of color within the Multnomah County workplace. Black women, Latinx women, Asian women, from all over the organization gathered to connect and share strategies on how to navigate situations unique to those negotiating intersecting marginalized identities. 

Adebawo described the experience as transformative and affirming. 

“I’d just come out of an educational setting where there were no role models that looked like me at all,” she said.  

“To come back to the County and see that there wasn’t just one woman of color: that there was community and diversity. It alleviated the fear.”