From Theory to Practice: The Importance of Community Engagement as a Student in Public Health


Allison Baumgartner

1st Year MPH Global Epidemiology Candidate

 The bedrock of public health is the community. While trained in biostatistical and epidemiologic methods – finding my happy place among numbers and data visualizations – I also love listening and learning about someone’s story: things that are important to them, where they come from, and their dreams. Listening and trying to glean some wisdom from each encounter is a gift. The unique beauty of public health is that this field is so incredibly multidisciplinary, spanning from mathematical equations, policies, and systems to the people and communities these realities impact. That is why I believe there is an inherent need for young public health professionals to gain exposure to diverse training experiences. While obtaining the skills needed for the public health journey (the toolbox of best quantitative linear regression techniques, R coding skills, qualitative thematic identifications, and understanding existing policies and procedures), these skills do not inherently make a student an equitable partner collaborating across disciplines, spaces, and places. We learn how to listen, communicate, and effectively use our strengths for collaborative, positive change only through engaging with communities as equal partners – listening to stories and bringing diverse perspectives to the theoretical table. 

In a recent discussion, we were fortunate to chat with our partners in Grenada before embarking on our journey this February. As a good practice, it is imperative to learn the cultural and community context of a public health need (i.e., Google searches and literature reviews can only get you so far). In this discussion, our collaborator mentioned how, through the work of public health and partners, we walk alongside communities during each stage of life – empowering members by upholding dignity and providing space for all. Every interview, policy, strategic plan, and intervention activity should align with this idea. Through every effort, no one’s voice should be left out, and no one should left behind. 

Through a Public Health Action Support Team (PHAST) course, 15 students travel to Grenada in February to support three community-identified projects. As a first-year MPH student, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to meet, listen, and learn from my fellow second-year colleagues, the fantastic faculty and staff at the school, and community partners. I am excited to have my eyes open to learning from community caregivers, synthesizing interviews and existing literature, and collectively sharing ideas about a comprehensive dementia and Alzheimer’s care plan in Grenada. As more and more communities age, global collaborative efforts towards creating proactive, accessible dementia and Alzheimer’s care are needed (following the direct guidance and partnership of communities).