Leaders in the Field: Empowering Public Health Leaders with Authentic, Challenging Experiences

For all the knowledge it holds, the University of Michigan doesn’t build its Leaders and Best in the confines of campus and classroom alone. For its students to serve—to go forth and fulfill the responsibility and promise of that uniquely Michigan mantra—experience away from whiteboards and spreadsheets is critical to their education and to their responsibility to develop and act as agents of change.

“There is a limit to what you can learn in the classroom,” says Christopher Clarke, program director of Michigan’s Summer Enrichment Program (UMSEP) and the Health Equity Leadership Pipeline Collaborative at Michigan Public Health, both of which foster “pipelines” bridging passionate students to spaces and actors on the frontlines of public health. “Coursework gives you an important foundation, but it is a safe and comfortable environment. Until you get out there—working with the healthcare professionals who are solving complex health equity issues in the field—you won’t have a true understanding of the complexities.”

Authentic Experience

Each semester, alongside rigorous academic work, Clarke and his colleagues in UMSEP and the Collaborative ask their students to enter spaces where the careful controls and theoretical frameworks of academia don’t always dominate. In Detroit, Flint, and locations across the country, they prepare students for, and provide them with, an unflinching look at the realities of health equity and health disparities. “We strive to provide truth—in research, in data, and in experience. Students ask us to give them that,” says Clarke. “We owe it to them, so we do not send them to comfortable places. We match them with organizations and communities where they can have the most health equity exposure and impact.”

For students, these new experiences can be eye-opening and, in many cases, truly transformative. “They are often surprising for the students,” says Clarke, “because you can research and you can study, but until you see health disparities and inequity up-close—until you listen and hear from a community member or leader who is experiencing those disparities, living them—they are not as real. As a result, a significant part of UMSEP becomes about experiential learning. We sit down in a classroom with students and talk about their expectations first, but then they get out and see that public health work is hard. In some ways, it is like pulling the chair out from under them.”

“We strive to provide truth—in research, in data, and in experience.”

—Christopher Clarke

For many students, in the field they are confronted for the first time with policies, ideologies, relationships, needs, and group-interests that complicate their picture of public health work—and ask them to explore sometimes personal questions about their goals and the choices they’ll make when lives are on the line. “When you’re asked to make a decision that impacts a large group of people, what decision are you going to make? Will it be about making money, or about serving people? These are the moral, value-based decisions that public health leaders are asked to commit—and commit to—every day,” says Clarke.

Sometimes the students are shocked by this reality, Clarke explains, “but it is critical to action, and everything we try to do with the Collaborative, with UMSEP, comes down to action. We create a space, a venue, and opportunity first, but we do not ever want to do things without action—our students are going to go out and work, make a difference, make a change.”

Honest Connections

As they confront new and demanding situations through UMSEP and the Collaborative, Clarke and colleagues across Michigan Public Health take great care to connect students to good mentors, many of whom have national reputations as effective public health practitioners. “You need to see the leaders, you need to be around them and work with them,” Clarke says. “Academia is a comfortable place to learn, but until you turn it into practice, you won’t know what it is like to make critical decisions.”

To Clarke, who works closely with Collaborative Director and Assistant Professor Ebbin Dotson and other health equity collaborators, his job is to facilitate inspiring connections that can grow into ecosystems of knowledge and passion. That’s where he sees students become leaders ready to tackle under-addressed and complex health equity issues. “We need new leaders that are passionate about addressing health equity issues, going to places they have never been before. So we work with stakeholders to create a pipeline of students who can take up this work—a community.”

Ultimately, that pipeline becomes a system of reciprocity that keeps the Collaborative and UMSEP vibrant, a bridge built of mentors looking to provide the same support they received as students. “A mentor pulls you along the way. You learn with them, you grow, and after you graduate, you go into the field and ascend because of all the people you have been mentored by. Eventually you get to a place where you look back and you become a mentor for someone else, maybe through UMSEP or the Collaborative, and it goes on and on.”

Collaborative Research Assistant and UMSEP alumnus Aaron Hopkins (UMSEP ’14) credits his continuing success to that unique approach to mentorship. Hopkins will join Mount Sinai Hospital as an administrative resident after graduation this spring. His relationship with his UMSEP preceptor Alonzo Lewis, senior vice president of operations at St. Joseph Hospital, was built around reciprocal engagement: “I saw someone I wanted to be like years down the line. In me, he saw himself when he was student. It was working with him that I realized my life’s purpose, and if it was not for UMSEP and my preceptor—who still serves as my mentor to this day—I would not be where I am presently, as a leader and student.”

Conquering Fear

Cleopatra Howard Caldwell has for more than two decades leveraged a community approach to mentorship at Michigan Public Health. Her students have risen to leadership roles in the Centers for Disease Control, the US Public Health Service, and many other organizations.

As chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education and director of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health (CRECH), Caldwell says her strategy for training is community. “At any given time we have master’s students mentoring undergraduates, PhD candidates mentoring master’s students, and so on. It becomes a kind of social network. And we talk about it being mentorship across generations. Just as our students are engaged in mentoring others at the school, when they leave here they’ll be involved in mentoring the next generations.”

“We look at mentoring as always being multidirectional.”

—Cleopatra Howard Caldwell

Caldwell’s mentors and mentees strengthen and empower one another, building confidence and skills that drive more meaningful, long-lasting engagement in the communities they serve. “We take fear—the fear that ‘I’m not ready’ or ‘I don’t know everything’—and replace it with a simple, if small, truth. You have to know you can make a difference, that you can make a difference in somebody’s life in a positive way.”

Shared responsibility and other aspects of teamwork are the foundation of Caldwell’s approach. “We want to listen, to really hear different perspectives, and to be willing to give up some of our power. In the end, this drives a different kind of success, a longer lasting kind,” she says.

Adapting to Change

Caldwell stresses that success can take many forms, both professionally and personally, and that public health leadership must be agile enough to adapt as the world itself changes. To that end, CRECH builds diverse training into the equation from day one, preparing participants for achievement in practice and research. “Mentoring—and being mentored—is reading papers, researching, and creating opportunities for yourself and others. There are always conferences, manuscripts, opportunities to participate, and together we build lasting support systems for individuals and organizations. We look at mentoring as always being multidirectional.”

In a similar way, Clarke asks students to develop proficiencies that make them pace-setters, not only as healthcare administrators but as researchers, authors, and communicators. “You will disseminate information,” Clarke tells his students. “You will take what you learn and you will share it. That is an expectation.” Fieldwork is likewise “a two-way street,” with a direct line from the field back to campus learning, Clarke says. “Why should we not learn the most we can from healthcare professionals and bring it back to academia?” he asks.

The critical insight that we are part of much larger communities informs all responsible public health work, at Michigan Public Health and beyond. And the challenging experiences we provide our students remind us that knowledge, experience, and need are all two-way streets.

—Eric Zanotti

  • Aaron Hopkins visiting the Survival Flight operation during a Michigan Medicine site visit

    Aaron Hopkins visiting the Survival Flight operation during a Michigan Medicine site visit

  • Ebbin Dotson, Jacqueline Thomas-Hall (System Director, Diversity and Inclusion, Beaumont Health), Rayanne Farhat (UMSEP ’17), and Christopher Clarke

    Ebbin Dotson, Jacqueline Thomas-Hall (System Director, Diversity and Inclusion, Beaumont Health), Rayanne Farhat (UMSEP ’17), and Christopher Clarke

  • UMSEP 2017 alum Sofia Hinojosa interning for the Senate HELP committee

    UMSEP 2017 alum Sofia Hinojosa interning for the Senate HELP committee

  • UMSEP 2017 interns visiting the Survival Flight operation during a Michigan Medicine site visit

    UMSEP 2017 interns visiting the Survival Flight operation during a Michigan Medicine site visit

  • Caldwell with CRECH collaborators

    Caldwell with CRECH collaborators