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 Finding Our Place in MCH

Reflections from two MCHB trainees on how the experience changed their paths

"Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am." 

This quote from Parker J. Palmer is a perfect way to start off this personal reflection piece, given its clear parallels with our experiences. Self-reflection might be the way to recognize that you are following a specific path, which is no surprise, since self-reflection is one of 12 Core Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Leadership Competencies.

The vignettes below describe personal discovery journeys of two Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs (AMCHP) staff members who credit their experiences as trainees in the Health Resources and Services Administration's Maternal and Child Health Bureau with uncovering their true passion for serving MCH populations through public health.

How My M.D. Plan Joyfully Fell Apart

Maura Leahy, M.P.H.
Program Associate, Child and Adolescent Health
The Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs

When I was selected as the 2009-10 public health trainee for the Baylor College of Medicine Leadership Education in Adolescent Health (LEAH) program, little did I know that I would find myself later working for a leading organization in the MCH field.

I had accidentally fallen into public health. Having been wait-listed at my top choice of medical school, an academic advisor told me about a Master of Public Health degree that I could pursue while I got in-state residency in Texas. I figured I would crank out the degree in a year and a half, gain residency status, and then go to medical school like I'd always planned, just with a bonus extra degree.

Said plan began to fall apart quickly into my first semester of graduate school, as I was immediately drawn into my coursework and the sheer passion of my professors. One of those professors was a LEAH faculty member, who selected me to be the public health trainee for the LEAH program. I thought it would be good experience and something to add to my resume. I never imagined the amount and quality of leadership skills I would gain.

Our curriculum was guided by Adult Learning Theory and the Theory of Experiential Learning. It focused around skill sets in several core areas: clinical objectives, public health objectives, teaching, research, and administration. The interdisciplinary nature of the fellowship and the composition of our cohort (other trainees were from medicine, nursing, psychology, social work, and nutrition) modeled the interdisciplinary nature of working with MCH populations and systems.

Additionally, much of our curriculum trained us to address several of the MCH leadership competencies. For example, as part of the teaching core of our program, each trainee was required to give a presentation to LEAH trainees and faculty, and a presentation in the community. I was able to incorporate the effective communication skills we learned in LEAH when I presented on the human trafficking of adolescents to the LEAH team and on the effectiveness of an evidence-based sexual health education program to a school district's human sexuality subcommittee. Using these skills, I learned to tailor information and to summarize the complex results of a randomized trial for a certain audience.

At the end of my LEAH training, it was clear to me that public health, and specifically the adolescent population and MCH field, was where I belonged. While I have worked in non-public health fields at times, I never forgot the skills I learned in LEAH. I continue to apply those almost 10 years later at AMCHP.

Dumping My Ph.D. Plan Led to My Public Health Passion

Paige Bussanich, M.S.
Senior Program Manager, CYSHCN
The Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs 

Much like Maura, I did not envision I would end up working in public health after graduate school. That wasn't because of a lack of passion for public health; rather, the feeling stemmed from my overly headstrong attitude that I knew where I was going, and nothing could change that.

Retrospectively, I wouldn't have chosen any other journey. Two-and-a-half years later I can't see myself being anything other than an AMCHP'er.

Throughout that journey, my passions never changed, but my perspective on how I could meaningfully contribute to society shifted. I quickly became a research wonk in college when I realized that the majority of research about individuals with developmental disabilities (my passion area) focused on what society considers to be "negative" attributes: temper tantrums, communication challenges, marriage instability, costly interventions, etc. I was so eager to change that perspective that I risked my own mental health in my attempt to change the discourse at my graduate institution.

Four years into my Ph.D. program, I realized I was unhappy with my journey. I no longer found pleasure in the act of completing my research, and academia was suddenly undesirable. Thankfully, there was a guiding light within all of the chaos in my life: my involvement with the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) training program.

My LEND mentors helped me to see public health for what it truly is: a field of extremely passionate individuals working to improve health outcomes and quality of life for all humans. Through spending time with families, walking through case studies in interdisciplinary groups, and a community practicum supporting independent living mentorships between autistic adults, I discovered a way to expend my passion where I truly felt at home. I might have one less degree than what my former life plan intended, but I found my place, as a human development and family studies expert, at the welcoming table of public health. I haven't looked back.

Going back to Parker Palmer's quote: Workforce development initiatives have the power to trigger personal discoveries that can uncover true passion.