From Directionless to DIF and On…

 

As I approach the last quarter of my time as a Fellow and head on to pursue my Masters of Public Health next fall, the DIF’s fearless leader in Career Development asked if I might share how I got here from last year when I had no inkling of what I might do the next year, let alone for the rest of my life. So here goes…

During undergrad, it seemed like most of my friends figured out what they loved early on, from chem research to music theory, and stuck with it. Meanwhile, I had a blast bouncing around from gene editing and behavioral ecology to as many East Asian religions classes as I could sneak in (take a class with Dr. Pang and thank me later). But even after hours lounging outside the Union listening to tour guides assure parents that Davidson produced students before athletes (“Athletes and other students all go to the same classes AND eat in the same dining hall!”), I can’t deny swimming was my thing. I enjoyed going to class, but heading to Baker to try and chase down the guys at the end of a long set? That was what I loved.

Then senior year rolled around, and I was still sitting outside the Union drinking gallons of Honest Tea, now mulling over the fact that “run of the mill athlete in low interest sport” didn’t have a great post-collegiate outlook. I decided to buy more time by applying to a bunch of one year positions to put off figuring out what I actually wanted to do. I got an interview for the DIF’s Community Health Cohort despite having no significant public health background nor having taken a single public health centered class. The interview fell while I was off at NCAAs that spring, so I watched some quick webinars on the US health care system in between sessions, Skyped in from my hotel, and hoped for the best. Three months later, I walked in to my first day of work at Charlotte Community Health Clinic (CCHC).

Fortunately, my colleagues cared less about what I knew how to do and more about what I could learn to do quickly. I started by researching and writing grants, getting trained in EPIC (our electronic medical records system), and learning about the data gathering and analysis required for our federal grants. I taught myself our donor management system and became responsible for it. I worked with our referral coordinator on our follow-up process, rewrote our volunteer program, and worked with the community at outreach events. I interviewed our patients for advocacy and development purposes, analyzed our clinical and demographic data, and worked on program planning for expanding our women’s clinic and HIV services. I had the opportunity to sit in on a variety of health related community coalitions and work with my own cohort on writing a grant proposal for a resource we identified as missing from all of our clinics. And, I find value in the work I do. When I get tired of sitting at my desk for ten hours, I think of one of the countless stories that trickle back from clinical staff of lives changed and of individuals able to do the things they love most because of CCHC’s work. It’s more than enough to keep me going.

So, if you don’t know what you want to do next year, find an opportunity like this one that lets you try a little bit of everything. The exposure to a wide range of experiences allowed me to quickly identify what was not my thing (development) and what might be (health intervention implementation). By the time late fall rolled around, I had realized community focused public health was something I could imagine myself doing for the rest of my career. I look forward to getting to play with data while trying to communicate it in a way that creates the potential for systems level change. I’m excited to still work with the strict quantitative perspectives I revered in bio classes interwoven with the unpredictable challenges that surface when you try to apply them in real communities. I love how public health pulls from the multitude of disciplines and experiences I enjoyed at Davidson but never quite figured out how to tie together.

So, should I have tried to narrow my academic focus more while at Davidson? Probably. If I had to redo it, would I do anything different? Probably not. I had the time of my life making swimming my thing at Davidson. And, despite not finding my exact academic passion while at school, I’m still confident that I gained the writing, communication, and critical thinking skills that will allow me to tackle the challenges of a career in health interventions. I’ve now lived one of the benefits of a liberal arts education: my time at Davidson prepared me for a career I didn’t even know I was interested in while at school. So to any panicking seniors that don’t know where you’ll end up, go get yourself a Union Egg & Cheese Wrap (potentially what I miss most about Davidson), relax, and maybe apply for a DIF Fellowship or two. When you eventually figure out where you want to be, chances are Davidson has already given you many of the skills you’ll need to succeed there.

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