Community Tobacco Specialist, Vermont Department of Health
Sarah Wylie graduated from the Master of Public Health in Community-Oriented Public Health Practice program and is now working as a community tobacco specialist for the Vermont Department of Health. In this interview, Sarah discusses the benefits of problem-based learning, the role her classmates played in the learning experience and the variety of projects she worked on during the COPHP program.
What kind of work are you doing currently?
In my current position with the Vermont Department of Health, I work on a full range of tobacco interventions. I help to develop our program's statewide policy priorities, provide technical assistance and training to community grantees working on environmental change at the local level, and field complaints from the public related to tobacco use. I love this work because I have a bird's eye view of the many factors influencing tobacco use, and I get to think critically about how to change the system. For example, the complaints we receive about tobacco use and what our community grantees see on the ground feed directly into our statewide policy priorities. I enjoy the direct impact we can have on Vermonters' lives.
How has the COPHP program helped you in your career?
The program has helped me in two main ways: It strengthened my ability to think critically about upstream factors that influence health and helped me develop the necessary skills to be part of a highly functional team. Without my COPHP experience I would feel far less comfortable facilitating difficult conversations, stepping up to manage complex projects, drawing on others' strengths to develop the best possible product, or drawing on outside community partners to get their perspective. COPHP also taught us to set priorities and consider the greatest change that could be made with the resources and circumstances at hand.
How would you describe the learning experience of the COPHP program?
Overall it was one of the most intense learning experiences I've ever had, in a good way. From the very beginning I felt like I was in a room with a lot of interesting and smart people who already had a lot of great work experience to bring to the table. That was definitely a theme throughout the program — learning as much from my classmates as I was from the cases or facilitators.
What were your classmates like?
They were great. Some of them are still my closest friends. I think the program did a great job assembling a group of people with very diverse career experience. As we worked together on cases and projects that were actually benefiting the community, we felt like we were coworkers. In terms of thoughtfulness, intelligence and experience it really was an exceptional group of people.
How would you describe the faculty?
The faculty were very approachable and, though they had these great careers of their own, they were more interested in our learning. I also liked how accessible they were outside of the classroom. I definitely felt like I could've gone to a number of the faculty, in addition to my own advisers, if I were having any issues.
What is your impression of the problem-based learning component of the program?
I felt like there was no time where we weren't fully involved in the learning experience. For example, it was during the time of the H5N1 [bird flu] outbreak, so the program director asked us how the program should deal with the problem. I think that is what makes the program so worthwhile. Instead of going through a program where you can say, "I wrote a paper or read a bunch of articles," what you're actually able to say is, "I was faced with this problem and figured out the best solution for this community, and then I took these action steps to help them get there." When you're out in the real world, it's much more helpful to have those concrete skills and hands-on experiences.
What types of projects did you work on?
I did my practicum with Public Health – Seattle & King County, in the violence and injury prevention program. I also did a capstone project where I worked with a community-based organization that put together a toolkit to measure community mobilization work. Some of our other projects included a traffic safety project up in Snohomish County, a needs assessment for a church in the U-District, and helping a town just outside of Seattle figure out how to communicate better with its limited English proficiency populations, in case of a public health emergency.
Do you have any advice for people thinking about a career in public health?
Don't get too wrapped up in the subject area you plan to specialize in, but really focus on the skills and the type of change you want to see instead. I think a lot of people go into public health programs thinking, "I want to work on diabetes," or, "I want to work on heart disease." But what I realized is that it's really about a skillset and about the types of changes that you want to implement. There are so many different causes where you can make a difference. I think staying open to the possibilities and the type of work you want to do was one of the biggest things I learned from that program.