In one sentence, what is public health to you?
Public health is the collaboration of social and scientific disciplines to facilitate improved population health and happiness, at any and every level possible.
What inspired you to study public health?
I grew up around public health; I have family in the field and was surrounded by discussions on behavior theory and communicable disease from a young age. Despite this exposure though, I didn’t realize how passionate I was about public health until I lived abroad in Hungary for a year after high school. The knowledge–about my personal health, sex education, hygiene, nutrition–that I took for granted as common sense was a mystery to my peers. Seeing and experiencing the advantages that that disparity of knowledge and access gave me inspired me to pursue a career in public health. Health is a human right and has the power to either positively or negatively influence the rest of person’s pursuits and experiences, yet a huge number of people experience systemic barriers that will keep them from good health despite even their best efforts.
What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career/studies so far?
Senior year of my undergraduate career I had the opportunity to serve on the College Panhellenic Council, the governing body for the university’s sorority organizations. In my role, and through my public health program, I organized a collaborative training session between sorority executive councils and the university department of health on trauma informed care and sexual assault. Executive councils in sororities are often the first contact Greek assault survivors have after the incident, so their approach to survivors and knowledge of resources is critically important in the Greek community. This experience was so rewarding for me because I saw in real time how influential education and support can be on a group; during the session women realized that they had been experiencing unhealthy relationships, they role-played and tested out different conversations they could have with their members, and learned to trust the university with their survivors’ experiences instead of fearing the establishment. Ultimately it was more successful and autonomy reinforcing than I ever anticipated, and is now conducted annually.
As a public health professional you can’t “save” everyone, nor is it your job to. We seek to bolster individuals and communities and enable them to set and achieve their own ideal of health. This should not be conflated with micromanaging or “fixing” their problems for them, which will become equally frustrating to the people you serve and yourself.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?
One of the most pervasive issues public health faces is systemic barriers to health and social determinants of health. While other, more specific, challenges exist and need intervention, as long as the policies and communities that house those interventions are inequitable they will not achieve the health outcomes so desperately needed. Balancing out the barriers to education, healthcare, housing, and non-traumatizing social interaction for populations disproportionately experiencing poor social determinants of health can and does facilitate success in interventions addressing other public health issues. It is difficult to address social determinants of health as a whole because they are systemic by nature, but that pervasiveness is exactly why the public health field should be focused on it–only a mobilized force of caring, informed professionals will be able to enact the change needed.