“Guinea broke my heart … I wasn’t prepared to watch entire families die. I wasn’t prepared to watch villages die,” said Watson-Stryker, a Rutgers graduate, one of four Ebola fighters profiled as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”
The magazine featured the individuals as exemplars of the doctors, nurses and frontline responders who are risking their lives to save others and help contain the epidemic in West Africa, where Ebola claimed the lives of more than 6,000 in 2014.
"For their tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to strengthen its defenses, for the risks they took and the lives they saved, the Ebola fighters are Time's 2014 Person of the Year," said Time editor Nancy Gibbs in a Dec.10 announcement explaining the magazine's choice.
Watson-Stryker, 34, who graduated with honors from Rutgers in 2002, worked 12-hour days, seven days a week as a health promoter and educator, first in Guinea at the epicenter of the outbreak and then in Sierra Leone and Liberia. She and other MSF workers provided outreach to villagers, mitigated community fears of health workers, cheered on sick children and offered solace to families.
At Rutgers, Watson-Stryker majored in geography and religion. She said she stumbled into what would become a lifelong calling after college when she landed a job with a public health foundation.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a career, but I loved it – it combined all the aspects of science and social science and social justice that I find fascinating and meaningful, “ said Watson-Stryker, who later earned a master’s degree in international affairs and public health from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.
Her work has ranged from field consulting on polio eradication for the World Health Organization to teaching public health and social sciences to Shan youth in Burma to working as an intern in the Ghana Health Service.
Watson-Stryker was born in New Brunswick and lived there as a young girl. “My mom says I learned to walk on the Old Queens lawn. I remember walking up to Passion Puddle with my dad when I was very little,” she said. She moved to California at age 5 but at 18 decided to return to Rutgers as a student. Her mother, Elizabeth Watson, a professor at Humboldt State University in California, received her doctoral degree in sociology from Rutgers in 1986.
“Looking back, I am amazed at the wisdom of my choice. I loved being surrounded by so many different types of people – all of them passionate and motivated about their studies and about the world,” Watson-Stryker said.
She said she chose the geography and religion departments because of the array of talented professors who were both prolific scholars and engaging teachers. “My senior thesis advisers, James T. Johnson and Elvin Wyly, both had a big impact on me – I spent a lot of time in their offices struggling with how to connect two very different fields of study into a coherent piece of academic work. “
James T. Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Religious Ethics in the School of Arts and Sciences, has fond memories of the Henry Rutgers scholar whom he advised on her thesis, which explored the World Council of Churches and the global anti-apartheid movement.
“Ella was always very intelligent and very engaging, mature beyond her years,” Johnson said. “I had her tapped as someone who would make her mark. I’m so happy that she ended up doing something that is meaningful and that she is being recognized for it.”
Watson-Stryker isn’t certain of her next MSF post. Last week she attended a debriefing meeting in Brussels, one of MSF’s headquarters, and will fly home December 19 to the United States. When she isn’t traveling, she lives in New York City.
Watson-Stryker’s father, Don Stryker, director of facilities at Princeton Friends School, is looking forward to spending Christmas with his daughter.
“I am proud that Ella was chosen to represent the hundreds of MSF workers dedicated to stopping this epidemic and healing these nations … grateful not only to her but to the many tens of thousands of people around the world doing this work,” he said.
Ella Watson-Stryker is featured in Time magazine's print publication and online edition, which includes a video. Click here to read more.
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