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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A Rural Fellow’s Experience: Challenges & Opportunities

A blog post written by Niki Euhardy, 2017-2019 Fellow

There are many definitions of “rural,” and I would argue in the case of the fellowship, “rural fellow” more or less describes fellows located outside of Wisconsin’s two largest cities, Madison and Milwaukee. During the lifetime of the fellowship, rural fellows have been placed in locations such as Shawano, Menominee, Wausau, Stevens Point, Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, La Crosse, Lac du Flambeau, and Wisconsin Rapids - where I am placed. These are not all small towns - Wausau is the largest city in northern Wisconsin with almost 40,000 residents, while La Crosse has a population of 51,834, and Eau Claire boasts 68,587 residents. Even the smaller towns are still located near larger cities. I say this because I think sometimes “rural fellow” might scare people off a bit by leading them to think they’ll be in a town of a few hundred people with nothing to do for 2 years, but this is far from reality.

Okay, I’ll stop with my geography lesson of fellowship placements now, and talk about something I know more about - my own experience as a rural fellow. Let’s start at the beginning. I grew up in the Northeastern region of Wisconsin in an unincorporated town and attended high school in a town of about 7,000 people. It was my experience growing up in a rural area and seeing the various issues affecting my community that led me to pursue a degree in public health. To be clear, I am by no means “against” big cities - I actually lived in Madison and Milwaukee for 6 years for undergrad and grad school before returning to rural Wisconsin, and I loved every second of it and I still get excited when I get to visit those places. But even after those experiences, my heart remained in rural Wisconsin which is why I was so excited about the opportunity to be a rural fellow.

My placement site is the Wood County Health Department, which is responsible for serving about 73,000 residents throughout the county. To provide a bit more context for those who might be unfamiliar, Wood County is smack dab in the middle of the state - Pittsville, a town located in Wood County, is actually the geographical center of Wisconsin (you’re welcome for the fun fact). I work in the health department, which is located in Wisconsin Rapids, a beautiful city along the Wisconsin River, home to 17,806 residents. As my time as a fellow is quickly coming to an end, I’ve learned there’s both opportunities and challenges that seem to be unique to rural fellows, and I’d like to share what I think has been my biggest challenge and biggest opportunity so far along my journey.

In my experience, the most challenging part of being a rural fellow is not being located close to other fellows. For example, some of the Madison-based fellows get together regularly for lunch and some of the Milwaukee-based fellows occasionally meet up for coffee or activities. I’m located at minimum a 2 hour drive from the locations where other fellows are currently placed, including the other rural fellow. This is challenging because it would be great to get together regularly in-person to share our experiences, have reflection time, carpool, and just enjoy some fun, social time together. Luckily, we have our monthly Learning Community meetings where we all get together for the whole day, and this has definitely been one of my favorite parts of the fellowship because of the relationships fostered during these days.

On the flip side, one of the biggest opportunities of being a rural fellow who’s not located close to other fellows is you’re often provided more leadership opportunities since you’re the only fellow in the region. I was fortunate to have been placed at the Wood County Health Department where they are looked to as a statewide leader in public health and are very progressive in their work. Two of my biggest projects during my fellowship have been focused on advancing health equity and incorporating a health in all policies (HiAP) approach within the City of Wisconsin Rapids by conducting health impact assessments. These are big projects the health department needed a fellow to take the lead on due to limited internal capacity. Health equity and HiAP are newer concepts within the local health department context in Wisconsin and few local public health workers are proficient in these areas, so this was a unique leadership opportunity for me. Had I been in a larger organization with more capacity, it’s unlikely I would have been given such a big leadership role in these projects. I definitely was not an expert in either of these areas when I came to Wood County, but I was eager to learn as much as I could about these topics, and I learned how to be proactive, independent, and brave in the process of leading the health department’s health equity and HiAP work.

I want to keep this blog brief, so I’ll wrap it up, but the main things I want people to know about being a rural fellow are 1. It definitely doesn’t mean living in a remote place with nothing to do; 2. Not being located near other fellows can be challenging; and 3. Unique leadership opportunities are abundant. My fellowship experience has been incredible, and I wouldn’t trade my time as a fellow for ANYTHING.