As the eighth oldest institution for higher learning in the United States, Rutgers is celebrating its 250th anniversary on November 10, 2016. To celebrate this monumental milestone, I Am Rutgers will be featuring Rutgers’ most involved and accomplished students in a new series, “250 for 250.” This year-long series will serve as a reflection of Rutgers’ diverse student body and status as a premier national research university.
As eloquently written by Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” For Madison Little, that direction was flute performance, an area of passion since age five. As a young musician with perfect pitch and synesthesia, Madison studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, won first place in an international music competition, and had his debut performance in Carnegie Hall – all by age sixteen. After graduating from secondary school, he planned to return to a conservatory to further pursue his established career as a performer.
As with any art, music is fundamentally about self-expression. I experimented with other instruments – violin, voice, and piano – before deciding on the flute. Playing the flute, I can be both peaceful yet fierce in my tone, a beautiful dichotomy that gives a layer of complexity to all pieces. I found this to be the most representative of the art I wanted to create. Performance has always grounded me. No matter what was external to me, I could escape into the piece I was performing and at the conclusion, there is a second of total tranquility.”
However, Madison’s plans changed drastically when he was extremely ill and incapacitated for his last year and a half of high school. In an eighteen month period, he went to sixteen different doctors and had thousands of dollars spent on medical testing and treatments.
This extended experience with the healthcare industry highlighted how broken our health system is; I realized that if I lived in other parts of the world, or other parts of the United States, that I never would have received a diagnosis. Furthermore, I realized the privilege I had in accessing care, particularly the fact that I had health insurance to cover a significant portion of the costs and that I had a social support system to help me reintegrate after my health improved. It was this experience that shifted me from a career in music to one in global health.”
Since his first year here, Madison has done incredible work in global health. Out of all his involvement and leadership experiences, being the External Co-President of GlobeMed, a global health non-profit organization, was one of his most meaningful experiences.
GlobeMed’s model really spoke to me. At its core, the organization is about empowering communities, working in partnership with these communities, and learning as much, if not more, from them as they learn from us. As the External Co-President, I was in charge of our partnerships, first working on HIV prevention among sex workers in Cambodia and later co-founding a partnership with a grassroots organization in Uganda working in the intersection of health care, education and microfinance. Being a part of GlobeMed provided a platform to critically think about the state of global health and how social movements play a fundamental role in advancing health equity. I realized that health is not just biomedical or even social. It’s political.”
Along with GlobeMed, Madison was a peer instructor for two undergraduate courses, Global Health Perspectives and Readings in Biology, a Research Assistant at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, University at Albany, and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research, and was an HIV Data & Analytics Intern at the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Madison is an internationally published HIV researcher and has presented papers in South Africa, Australia and throughout the United States.
While presenting AIDS research in Australia, he was a US delegate to the Melbourne Youth Force, an international coalition of young activists dedicated to reforming policy to end the AIDS epidemic among adolescents and young people.
Having begun my career in music performance definitely translated to my work in activism and advocacy. When I studied at Oberlin, the emphasis was on ‘finding your voice.’ We were not supposed to become musicians that play just another rendition of flute repertoire. We were to perform and record the repertoire with our own unique interpretation. To me, this is exactly what activism is about. We need to understand everything we see in the media, in research, in conversation, etc. in order to identify gaps and current failures and then to create our own unique message. That is how we create change.”
Although Madison graduated one semester early in December, he has remained very involved with Cap & Skull, the selective senior honor society on campus that chooses eighteen seniors per year based on one’s leadership, character, and contributions to the university.
Cap & Skull has been one of the best experiences of my undergraduate career because it gave me the opportunity to connect with other student leaders across campus, each of whom are dedicated to improving our college community. Our senior year experience was mutually reinforcing, in which we shared the joy and excitement of others’ accomplishments and supported each other in the trying moments. Furthermore, with eighteen diverse leaders, Cap & Skull gave us the platform to talk about important issues, both about Rutgers and our larger communities, and to open our eyes to new perspectives. These relationships underlie a lifelong connection to Rutgers.”
As for Madison’s bright future, he will be pursuing graduate studies in social policy at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom this fall. He aims to develop social protection mechanisms for vulnerable populations and to improve public health infrastructures in efforts to eliminate the need for charitable aid. While Madison is moving on to his graduate program, he has some words of wisdom for other students pursuing their dreams.
Do you, do it differently, and do it well. Take what you learn in class, synthesize it, and question it – This is really what education is about, not just absorbing information but challenging the status quo.”