Becoming a Professional in Public Health

October 10, 2023 at 1:21 PM
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Becoming a Professional in Public Health

By Christina Testa and Jim Stellar

In the fall of 2023, Christina started graduate school at UAlbany in Master’s degree program at the School of Public Health. She went right on from being an undergraduate here, and we recently did a blog on her getting into graduate school. Now we are back (in essay format vs conversational format) to talk about this important next step, and to see how entering a graduate school program has clarified her ambitions for the future. We plan to come back repeatedly as this next level of higher education takes hold.

As she writes, “this new start has been filled with many new experiences and new discoveries.” She can see more clearly than ever before what her future in the professional world will be like. Graduate school has so far shown Christina what professionalism a glimpse of what will look like in the real world working in the Public Health field, specifically in her area of interest as a future epidemiologist. Again she writes, “Unlike the undergraduate experience, the graduate experience is very focused on acquiring the skills you will need to become a professional in your field or whichever you choose to study.” As background, Christina is currently taking four graduate classes all in which are essential for epidemiology. These classes include computer coding for data analysis, statistics, professional practices in public health, and principals and methods of epidemiology. So far in her first month Christina has thoroughly enjoyed the new knowledge and enjoyed learning in these classes and surrounded herself with classmates with a similar commitment to pursue in epidemiology and Public Health practice. Also, she is getting to know her professors on a personal level which has also helped her with navigating graduate school’s demands.

This extra level of focused commitment can occur in undergraduate education and it is often manifested as leadership of a club or some other organization on or off campus.  Often these experiences inform the choice of graduate school, like the cognitive-emotional learning from an internship so often featured in this blog series.  But it is different when the students are in graduate school and more focused. This contextual difference changes the student approach and the faculty approach as well. It is like when one is among friends, vs. students in general, and the conversation flows more easily. Except this time the discussions are focused on a particular field/profession.

Christina and Jim agree (from his days in graduate school so long ago) that the first step in preparing to enter the professional world is to learn how to learn. More so than ever, it is important to take the studying and learning skills one has developed over the undergraduate years and use those skills in still graduate education. We agree that it is one of the most important skills to master for yourself at any level of education, but it comes into much sharper focus here. It is clear to all that success in graduate school is dependent on time management, prioritizing work, etc; and knowing how to properly utilize these learning skills is very important for keeping up with graduate school’s expectations and rigor. As Christina notes, she has always taken learning how to learn very seriously in her education and considers them the most important take-way from prior learning alongside the passion and drive to learn in a specific field. But what is the effect of a graduate context in learning how to learn about epidemiology or any specific now-focused field of study.  And for this blog, how does that relate to the more implicit or perhaps emotional component of knowledge application that will soon be put to work?

 The graduate school experience takes on the previously learned learning experiences and then adds newer more personal/emotional learning experiences to the table. There is a more personal/emotional application within the graduate experience that separates the previous educational experiences. Now that Christina has experienced these implications she would agree that this experience is true on the graduate level. The shift to contextual learning is what adds in the personal/emotional experience for a graduate student, as stated in “Contextual Learning: Linking Learning to the Real World”. Learning about specific fields of study adds context to real life experiences and adds an emotional connection that is meaningful to the student. The graduate student’s passion for their field of study influences the impact contextual learning plays into their personal/emotional experience in becoming a professional. Learning in a more focused context ties into the real world experiences which begins the journey to the professional experience. Adding real life experiences/relevant topics to learning allows the student to incorporate and associate meaningful experiences to their learning which in turn results in more emotion toward the knowledge one is learning. In this way, it is not just your mind that is included in your learning, but your heart as well. Real world applications in learning are what prepare the graduate student for what they can encounter in the future. Studying and applying real world experiences to your learning will immerse the student into the situation and that is why there is added mind/emotional involvement. Christina would argue that this mind and personal/emotional reaction increases a students engagement in their field of study. As stated in Montgomery’s paper, the heart represents the emotional domains which include empathy and compassion. It is further mentioned that the head integration consists of knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs. All components of the heart and mind are essential for achieving professionalism as well as humanism. Using contextual learning will allow you to achieve the heart and mind integration by incorporating these fundamentals in your learning.

Christina has gotten a taste for studying real life applications in her field of study these past few weeks. Applying real Public Health issues to her learning has involved breaking down the public health issue at hand by determining any social determinants of health that could be involved as well as key drivers and solutions to improve health overall in a population as a whole. She is ambitious to continue her studies and continue learning with contextual learning integration in mind to connect her mind and heart in a real and emotional way. The desire to get out there in the real world in the near future is getting closer and closer for her now that she is experiencing higher education and truly immersing herself into the experiences of a Public Health professional and epidemiologist. This experience is truly shaping the way for Christina in preparation for real life application.  Learning about these Public Health situations and how to address health issues in the context of a Public Health professional and epidemiologist has shown Christina first hand that your heart and mind integration are keys to professional wisdom. Of course, Jim supports this as he often talks about both “heart” and “head” reasons contributing to the professional growth of students, even as undergraduates or in this case a new graduate student.

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Reflection on going to a public university, growing-up issues, and moving past graduation?
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