A Look at the Public Health Mentorship Program

Applications are under review for the second year of the International Program Development’s Public Health Mentorship. The program will begin January 2014, with a set of 28 undergraduate students participating. Following last year’s successful program, minor changes have been made to better offer productive conversation about public health to students. For more information on the program, visit http://bit.ly/1bhtNH0.

What is the Public Health Mentorship Program?

The program launched in January 2013 as an opportunity for Northwestern University students to have conversations about personal and professional development, specifically in regards to the public health field. It is catered towards, but not exclusively to, global health minors. The program pairs two Northwestern students, one underclassman and one upperclassman, with an alumnus. The matches are made based off survey responses to questions about personal interests, industry experience, and educational background, among others.

The public health field is continuously changing, and with these partnerships, students are exposed firsthand to opportunities they may pursue post-graduation, as well as the skills to get them there. Global Health Program Assistant Mary Poliwka, program administrator and NU alumna, built the program on the belief that the partnership offers unparalleled experiences for students.

In the first year, the program lasted one quarter and consisted of weekly meetings, usually via Skype, each focused on a different topic. This year, the program has expanded to two quarters with monthly focuses, allowing more time for each topic to be discussed in depth and fully understood before moving on. Topics include resumes and the job search process, elevator speeches, networking and interview skills, possible public health careers, and action plans. This year, says Poliwka, they have added monthly events to bring the skills to life.

Thoughts from the Program Administrator

Poliwka earned the global health minor in her time at Northwestern, so she knows firsthand the challenge to translate the coursework of the minor into a broader understanding of what the public health field entails.

Poliwka noticed that students all around seemed to be struggling with a question. They were asking themselves, “How do they translate [the Global Health minor] into a career?” says Poliwka.  This program helps build on the understanding that public health careers can fall into a broad variety of categories: alumni go on to work for nonprofits or the government, as consultants or doctors, among other positions.

The program seemed like an incredible opportunity to help prepare students for their futures while keeping alumni involved. “We capitalize on [alumni] as a resource,” says Poliwka. The need for the program was clear – the program attracted 40 undergrads in its first year. This year’s class will consist of 28 students, selected carefully out of a competitive field.

As Poliwka sees it, the practical components are just as important as the coursework, and this program is a way to promote better understanding of professional development in relation to goals and academic experiences.

The Experience of a Two-Time Mentor

Hannah Badal, a 2010 NU graduate, echoes Poliwka’s thoughts about the necessity of the program. When she was an undergrad pursuing the Global Health minor, she didn’t have any guidance about a career in public health. Throughout school, Badal says, “I was thinking, what’s next for me?”

Being a mentor has allowed her to help students to blend professional development with the combination of coursework and study abroad that minors accomplish in their four years at NU. She’s back for a second year because of the opportunity get involved and feel like they’re doing something productive post-graduation. “It’s nice to be able to share stances [on public health] and what we as alumni have learned.”

Badal is in her second year as a research and evaluation fellow working on the HIV/AIDS prevention team at the Center for Disease Control. After graduation from NU, she got her Masters in Public Health from Emory University.  Most of her NU peers ended up in public health fields, but in a broad range of positions. “That’s what makes the field unique and different,” she says. “There are so many things you can do. You’ll find that so many people have done a lot of other things, and that’s great.”

The changes to this year’s program are exciting for Badal, who believes the extended time frame will allow mentees to delve deeper into the topics. The lengthened program will fit better into the schedules of Northwestern’s incredibly involved students, she says. With the differences in class year for underclassmen and upperclassmen participating, sometimes the program moved too quickly for one part of the trio. Now, with a month to focus on each topic, Badal believes they will be able to cater even better to the needs of all participants. 

From Mentee to Mentor

Last year, senior Hayley Gleeson was one of the participants in the mentorship program. As she navigated her final year at NU, she began to seriously consider a career in public health.

“I realized that I barely knew anybody who had gone through the same process that I was about to begin,” she says. “I was hoping to expand my understanding of further education and employment within public health and to meet other students and alumni with similar interests to me.”

The mentorship program helped Gleeson through the graduate school application process in a way more directed towards global health than the Careers office offered her. “I thought the program would give me some more tailored knowledge and experience that I could apply to life after Northwestern,” she says.

It was well worth it – now a student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK, working on a Masters in Public Health, Gleeson attributes a successful application process to the advice she received from her mentor. They were matched very well, Gleeson says, and she really appreciated the advice on how to use skills from classes and internships to translate into a personal statement.

The program’s benefits were multi-faceted. “Winter quarter, I was interviewing for my Chicago Field Studies placement in the Spring,” says Gleeson, “and I felt a lot more confident in how to express myself and my interest in global/public health because of what I learned during the mentorship program.”

Because of these influential memories, Gleeson is a first-year mentor in the program’s second run. “I think it is important for Northwestern to continue to build on the network of alumni who are working in global and public health. It can be an overwhelming field for students to navigate and decide which area to focus on, and I am really excited about serving as a resource for NU students who have similar interests to me and could possibly be my future colleagues,” says Gleeson. The program took her interest in public health and gave it a direction, as well as helped to formulate her passion and career goals, and now she aims to do the same for others. 

Lessons from the Mentorship are Invaluable

As a participant in the program during my sophomore year, I can attest firsthand to the value of building relationships with upperclassmen and alumni. I came into the program passionate about global health and left with the inspiration and belief that it really was possible to have a career in the field post-graduation. Each week, as I spent time talking with Hannah and Hayley (yes, those two profiled above were my partners from last year), I felt that I was growing. Beyond working on my resume, cover letters, and interview skills, I also got the opportunity to learn about Hayley’s application for grad school, ask about class recommendations, and learn how to get further involved on campus.

It can be intimidating to be a student at Northwestern – here, surrounded by talented and unique peers, it sometimes feels like you’re the only one who doesn’t have it all figured out. In reality, this is the time of our lives to be figuring it out. As someone who didn’t know about the global health minor until I got to NU, I am astounded by how much I have learned in my two and a half years here. With the help of the mentorship program, I see myself in a career in public health someday.

Congratulations to the mentees accepted into the 2014 Mentorship Program, and thank you to all the mentors who give your valuable time and wisdom to help us develop our paths. 

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