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Charting Her Own Path in Public Health

Elizabeth Burpee

Elizabeth Burpee

ReFresh Coordinator, Broad Community Connections

Elizabeth Burpee was serving as a program evaluation manager in Mexico when she discovered the powerful effect public health work can have on the world. So she decided to go back to school, eventually earning a joint master's degree in social work and public health from the University of Washington.

In this interview, Elizabeth discusses how her experience in the Master of Public Health in Community-Oriented Public Health Practice program gave her unique insights and prepared her to chart her own path. “COPHP helped make me an even better self-directed worker. In many ways, my job is uncharted territory,” she said. “I feel more confident navigating the unknown.”

Can you tell us about your current job?

I work at a small but mighty community development nonprofit in New Orleans. We co-own and run the ReFresh Project, a “community health hub” located in one of the most culturally rich neighborhoods in the city. This area also happens to have some of the worst local health outcomes. In my position as ReFresh coordinator, I lead a collective impact initiative involving over 60 organizational partners and community members in the hub, with the goal of achieving health equity in the surrounding neighborhoods. 

How did the COPHP program prepare you for your current role?

COPHP helped make me an even better self-directed worker. In many ways, my job is uncharted territory; there is no specific template for how to do it best, and I have a lot of flexibility. I feel more confident navigating the unknown, and I know how to effectively research, ask critical questions and apply a social justice lens to everything I do. I also constantly interface with a wide variety of organizational partners, and the real-life cases in COPHP gave me a solid understanding of the professional public health world, as well as of program development and evaluation, which made the learning curve much smaller.

Why did you choose the COPHP program in particular?

I knew the UW School of Public Health was highly ranked nationally. The problem-based learning model seemed like a really good fit for me, because I'm a very hands-on person. And I read over some of the faculty bios and really liked how a lot of them had academic credentials yet continue to work in the field. They also seemed to have a lot of collective experience working with communities around public health issues in a variety of ways.

How would you describe the learning experience of the COPHP program?

It was great. With the problem-based learning approach, I learned how to take charge of my own learning. We were — as a group and as individuals — essentially in charge of figuring out how to figure things out. The professors were there for support, but they did not hold your hand. My professional and personal confidence grew a lot during this time.

I also really liked that everything we learned in COPHP was applicable and relevant to real life. We never learned about a concept in a vacuum. And many times, our projects and learning were tied to an actual community organization we were working with, to help them solve a problem they were facing. It also helped with my professional relationship-building skills and with learning about how different organizations work. That was invaluable.

What kind of work did you and your cohort do within communities?
We worked with a nonprofit in south Seattle that served homeless youth. We learned a lot about issues surrounding youth homelessness, resources for nonprofits, relevant politics – the multifaceted world of real-life public health. At the end, we gave the organization a presentation that included best practices for low-cost outreach methods and provided a menu of action-oriented recommendations as well as a list of relevant grant opportunities.

Another thing we did was work with Public Health – Seattle & King County to help brainstorm how King County jail inmates could continue to receive medical coverage upon their release from jail. As a final project, we presented PHSKC with researched suggestions on how to ensure quality continuation of coverage for inmates. They thought it was really useful.

What did you learn from these real-world experiences?
Public health is in everything, and these cases really taught us that. You're learning about the business of the insurance system, how the local jail system works, as well as the politics entrenched in these issues — all of which affects health.

What I learned is that there's so much more to this work than the public health content and memorizing facts. We're living in a world where there are a lot of different stakeholders — money's an issue, politics are an issue. There are so many different things at play. Working in the problem-based learning style and actually working with partners on real-time issues, we confronted these complex issues and contexts and learned how to work with and within them, which is invaluable when you're trying to move forward with a public health agenda.

How did the COPHP program influence the type of public health work you chose for your career?

It showed me the breadth of work you can do within public health, that it's okay not to have a specific focus. You can do a wide variety of things and contribute to the field.