Jonathan Robinson has gone from making rescues in Orange County to leading lifeguard training trips in Turkey and Thailand. (Photo/Courtesy of Jonathan Robinson)


Lifeguard travels the world while earning USC Master of Public Health online

Aspiring physician pursuing a public health degree volunteers as a youth program director and CPR instructor

March 16, 2018 Larissa Puro

The moment San Clemente surfer Jonathan Robinson plunged into the Pacific to pass a lifeguarding test at age 17, his passion became his profession.

Seven years of protecting the Orange County coastline groomed Robinson to be where he is today. The USC Master of Public Health student dreams of an international career in emergency medicine, saving lives wherever he can.

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

Drowning as a public health issue

Robinson is committed to saving swimmers’ lives through ISLA. Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. While all economies and regions face burden and death from drowning, low- and middle-income countries account for more than 90 percent of unintentional drowning deaths.

Jonathan Robinson portrait
Jonathan Robinson plans to specialize in emergency medicine after finishing his master’s in public health at USC. (Photo/Courtesy of Jonathan Robinson)

Dedicated to “open-water lifesaving” and preventing drownings, the association helps people secure aquatic safety in their own coastal communities. 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 ISLA trip to Nicaragua was a collaboration with the Red Cross. He and other 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.

Planning other lifeguarding projects

Now, as a watch commander, Robinson spends less time scanning the horizon these days in order to work with association administrators to help plan projects, facilitate inter-agency 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 in the training of local lifeguards and support for beaches. In the last year, he has led international teams to Turkey and Thailand, where they assisted training for lifeguards in drowning prevention, open-water rescue and medical skills.

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.

ISLA lifeguards training
Working with ISLA allows lifeguards like Jonathan Robinson to experience travel in different countries and provide knowledge and training to locals. (Photo/Courtesy of Jonathan Robinson)

“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, assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine. “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.”

And after college?

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, USC associate professor of clinical preventive medicine, has connected him to fellow Trojans working in his field, and she 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,” he said.

After completing 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 with whom they work.

“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.”