Coming Full Circle: Population Health Sciences 370

A blog post written by Kara Mathewson, 2018-2020 Fellow

I still remember walking up the hill to Birge Hall with one of my good college friends (and now fellow public health professional at Auburn University) and arriving at the basement entrance where we were met each day by a fierce, stuffed badger in a glass display case. We were headed to our first class of the day – Pop Health 370: Introduction to Public Health, Local to Global Perspectives.

As a sophomore in college, this was one of the first public health courses I would take. I recall being intrigued about using the public health approach in a discussion around bike helmets. Looking back, I also recall not fully understanding the practical applications of the social-ecological model. (Don’t worry, I do now.) Dr. Remington’s lecture sparked my interest in public health, and I started thinking about the larger population-level ties to the microbes I was studying in my other classes (as a microbiology major). I realized I was much more interested in the population level of infectious disease and prevention rather than studying the physiology of these microscopic organisms.

Fast forward five years and two academic degrees later (I went to get my MPH, as I didn’t want to spend one more minute doing wet lab bench work and I was so ready to dive deeper into public health) and now I’m a pop health fellow! I could go on and on about what an amazing year it has been as a fellow, but I’d like to zoom into one aspect of my fellowship experience: being a discussion leader for the UW Pop Health 370 course.

This spring semester I had the opportunity to lead a weekly discussion for the very class where my public health interest began. Despite my initial nerves about leading a discussion of 15 students only a few years my junior, I had a great experience leading them through discussions on a wide variety of public health topics.

So let me jump right into the positives of leading section 317:

1. Had really great students

  • I was a bit nervous that I might have a class of students who were shy to participate or were not excited about the topics; however, I was lucky to have a class that was eager to discuss the topics each week. The students were fun to interact with and brought their own opinions and experiences to share and reflect on.

2. Realized my own level of knowledge

  • I can now confirm that teaching really does help you to understand and retain knowledge better than just studying it. From leading this discussion, not only have I been able to really assess my knowledge level around public health fundamentals, but I also deepened my understanding of them and feel like I can more easily apply these concepts in my everyday work.

3. Strengthened my facilitation skills

  • The first tip they give you about facilitating is to embrace the awkward silence. This is something I’m glad I knew going into the discussion group, as there were plenty of times this occurred, and eventually students chimed in. I also learned a number of facilitation skills from leading this discussion including strategies to create a space where all views are valued. I found it extremely helpful to hear from other discussion leaders about their methods and best practices for meaningful discussion.

4. Jumped into things I loved from grad school

  • Outbreaks and case studies and vaccines, oh my! Another highlight for me in leading this discussion was revisiting some of my public health passions that I don’t work on every day. One of my favorite discussion activities was an outbreak investigation case study, of which I did many in grad school. It was fun to share my excitement about these public health topics with students and see what topics excited them as well. 

5. Applied critical thinking skills

  • These skills have come from all the learning I’ve done in the first 11 months of the fellowship through learning community meetings, the Community Teams Program through the Healthy Wisconsin Leadership Institute, and my placement site at DHS. I noticed in preparing for discussion each week, I was able to delve further into readings and videos in ways I hadn’t before. I found myself thinking more critically about articles which sparked questions for me to ask students around things such as upstream determinants of health and equity considerations.

In reflecting on my Pop Health 370 discussion section, I must also add that even the best experiences have their own challenges.

1. Many public health topics lead to hard conversations. We talked about gun violence, the diabetes epidemic occurring in Native American communities, and social determinants like poverty and racism. While these are all crucial discussions to improve public health they can be difficult to debate without also discussing, in-depth, strategies to solve these problems, including the work people are currently doing to combat these issues.

2. On that note, I think there is a need for bringing more solutions and current examples of good work to these conversations. It’s certainly difficult to get through everything you want to in a 75-minute discussion, but I feel that it would have improved the discussion to also read and explore solutions and current strategies. We did spend some classes exploring the evidence-based programs and policies that could improve issues, but I would have loved to have students take a deeper dive into these and get exposure to the many organizations, agencies, and individuals doing great work.

3. Lastly, it was difficult for me to not receive any feedback from students throughout the semester. Trying to read students’ faces did not give me much indication about how I was doing as a facilitator and I’m anxious to hear what my students thought about our discussion so I can explore ways to be a better discussion facilitator/leader.

Overall, I had a wonderful time leading this discussion and I’m so grateful that my fellowship experience brought me back to the place my interest in public health began.

Section 317 – outdoor policy discussion! The students went through the nominal group process to select a policy they thought would have the biggest impact on public health and eliminating disparities.

Section 317 – outdoor policy discussion! The students went through the nominal group process to select a policy they thought would have the biggest impact on public health and eliminating disparities.

From Minneapolis to Milwaukee: Progress, Reflection, and New Beginnings

A blog post written by Maddie Johnson, 2018-2020 Fellow

Near the end of my graduate education, I knew I wasn’t ready for it to be over. Two years seemed gone in an instant and though I felt like public health was the right field for me, I wasn’t prepared to focus on a specific career path. I still wanted space to learn and grow while also working towards positive change in the community I lived in. This sentiment is what drew me to the Wisconsin Population Health Service Fellowship. Working a full-time job while also creating time to learn and reflect seemed countercultural in a society that emphasizes constant doing rather than being. When I found out I was offered a position in Milwaukee working as a population health fellow, I was conflicted because many of my peers were moving straight into the working world. I had never even visited the city of Milwaukee – was I ready for such a move?

At the time of the fellowship offer, I was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota and finishing my last semester at the University of Minnesota in their master’s in public health program with a focus in public health administration and policy. The morning after I was accepted into the fellowship, I trudged along University Avenue to my graduate research assistantship at the UMN Rural Health Research Center. After arriving, I relayed the news to my supervisor, Dr. Carrie Henning-Smith,  conveying my feelings of excitement but also reservation. To my surprise, my supervisor informed me she completed the same fellowship ten years ago with site placements in Milwaukee.

Now that I am entering month 11 of my two-year fellowship, I look back on this coincidence, reflecting on my experience at the University of Minnesota and how my education led me to this program. I revisited my connection with Dr. Henning-Smith recently and asked her about her fellowship experience and career since then. During her fellowship, Dr. Henning-Smith was placed at the Milwaukee County Department on Aging where she worked on various projects including developing a county-wide wellness council. She was able to have a secondary placement at a small nonprofit, which worked on social services and wellness programming for older adults living in public housing. One of her favorite parts of the fellowship was having the freedom to explore different opportunities and areas in public health while also affirming her interests.

After completing the fellowship, Dr. Henning-Smith went to the University of Minnesota to complete her PhD with the goal of conducting research to address systemic problems. She states that the fellowship helped her work on her skills in listening and community engagement in a meaningful way. I find a lot of parallels when looking at Dr. Henning-Smith’s journey and my own journey. I currently have duel site placements at the City of Milwaukee Health Department in the Office of Policy, Strategy and Analysis as well as the Center for Urban Population Health. I am finding that success in the real world looks different from my academic studies, especially when incorporating the philosophy that change starts with the community.

While working at the UMN Rural Health Research Center with Dr. Henning-Smith, we created the Mental Health in Rural Communities toolkit (funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)), which refined my interests in mental health and in stakeholder engagement, both interests I have been able to explore throughout my fellowship. I connected with Dr. Henning-Smith recently to see what she wanted to highlight from this toolkit. I hope that this blog post can serve as a reflection of both of our fellowship experiences, but also shed light on a wonderful resource which will be helpful to rural communities across the country. Dr. Henning-Smith states that there is an urgent need to think about addressing mental health in rural communities. This toolkit provides a means to do so as we interviewed mental health programs across states to gather information on promising practices in the field.

When I talk to most people about how they came to work in public health, I find that our journeys may differ drastically, but we have one commonality: the path was indirect and at times far from obvious. Another commonality I have found is that public health folks have an innate desire to seek truth, justice, and a better society. I have met these individuals both in my time at the University of Minnesota and throughout my fellowship program. The fellowship has given me and others before me the opportunity to reflect, learn, and explore with the overarching goal of providing community service and creating positive system change. For these opportunities and future opportunities, I am grateful to my university professors, mentors, and fellowship staff. My path feels less uncertain and I know year two of the fellowship will provide me with more clarity, inspiration, and guidance.

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