Ashley Cooney, a Texas native, was recently awarded a $36,000 scholarship by the Rotary Club of Humble to help finance her continued education at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Cooney has already completed her bachelor’s degree and has one remaining year of study towards her medical degree.
“I was born in Lubbock, moved to Dallas and eventually moved to Austin to complete my B.S. in biochemistry at the University of Austin. After my undergraduate program, I was a teacher for two years and I taught ninth-grade biology in Austin; then I moved to Dallas, teaching for a sixth-12th grade private school. I was able to work with kids on the autism spectrum, kids with eating disorders, and other kids who were suffering from psychiatric illnesses. I am on the path to finish my third year of medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine,” said Cooney.
Cooney’s experiences teaching children made her realize that she has a passion for working with teenagers, especially girls, which would in turn affect her future path of study.
“I will be pursuing residency in OB-GYN. I did not originally go into medical school thinking that I would pursue residency in this area. My work – which heavily involved teaching children with psychiatric disorders, as well as the fact that I have seven younger siblings – made me assume that I would work in the field of pediatric psychiatry, but that turned out not to be the case. It turns out that I really love working with babies as well as with women, specifically teenagers,” said Cooney.
“Throughout my time in medical school, I was able to get involved with several organizations, but Doctors for Change was the one that set me on the path that I am on today. Doctors for Change is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization in Houston. With this organization, I was able to study policy briefs and travel to Austin to speak with Texas legislators about bills that were important to me. Also, when I got involved with this organization, I realized just how big of a problem human trafficking is in the U.S., specifically in the City of Houston. I started searching for health-care policies that would help to curb the unprecedented amount of human trafficking that exists,” added Cooney.
Cooney said that Houston is the third-worst city in the U.S. in terms of the magnitude of human trafficking, but it also leads the nation in resolutions and ideas that are being presented to put an end to this practice.
Human trafficking, she said, is simply a term for slavery, subdivided into labor and sex trafficking; women are typically sex trafficked and men are typically exploited for labor. The City of Houston suffers heavily from both types of trafficking.
Cooney said, “The reason that I care about human trafficking so heavily is because nearly 90% of victims see health-care providers while they are in captivity. These victims are not being identified or rescued, but there are indeed methods which we can use to identify victims. The lack of identification by health-care professionals of victims is the chief reason why I got involved. Some of the steps that I have taken to help solve this issue include my involvement with an organization called Freedom Place, which is a safe house for minor girls that are victims of sex trafficking. They take girls that have been identified and help to rehabilitate them. I created a health-care curriculum that empowers these women to learn about their health, which these girls do not have. Each month, I teach them about contraception, healthy relationships and other subjects which help them in their recovery,” said Cooney. “The work is difficult, but it is very rewarding; it is amazing to see these young women get better and start to feel comfortable again.”
There are an estimated 300,000 victims of human trafficking just in the state of Texas alone, of which 79,000 are children, an unacceptable number that motivates individuals such as Cooney to work passionately to both prevent human trafficking and better help rescue victims from its clutches.
Cooney aims to study reproductive and sexual health research in London, which will result in her obtaining a master’s degree. The program is designed to help students conduct policy-changing research in the area of sexual reproductive health, which will help her in her work with human trafficking victims and OB-GYN patients. After her stay at London, she will finish her final year of study at the Baylor College of Medicine and will then apply for residency in the field of OB-GYN.
“I hope that one day, I will be able to work in a teen clinic that will strive to identify victims of human trafficking,” concluded Cooney.