The Power of Vulnerability and Community: An Advocate for Mental Health Returns to Michigan

Spencer Walz

Spencer Walz

Bachelor's Student in Public Health, Vivian Craig Hagberg and John Hagberg Jr. Scholarship Fund


I started at the University of Michigan in sport management, but I really wasn't engaged. I grew tired, and started to get a little mentally ill. I started feeling like I didn't want to be in college anymore. I tossed around the idea of leaving college at that time and my family was really supportive. For the past 5 years I've been working on houses with my dad and volunteering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, expanding my creativity and working with my hands. But once I saw this undergraduate opportunity - to be a part of the first public health undergraduate class at Michigan - it made a lot of sense timing-wise, and passion-wise. I was in a better place to understand and manage the needed energy to come back to school and thrive, so I applied.

I've struggled with anxiety and depression most of my life, and I think I always knew I'd go into a field that addressed mental health. My mom is a lifelong social worker and I was raised in an environment that tried to understand and promote mental wellbeing. It just took me a little longer to realize that a similar path was the right one for me. I give a huge amount of the credit for that realization to my family and my friends.

Being a part of the new program was a big reason that I came back to school. I'm learning that piloting such a new program hasn't been all 'sunshine and rainbows,' for anyone involved, but it's been so rewarding. It's been hard work, but it's certainly helped me grow, and probably a lot of my fellow classmates, too. There's a community-building aspect to the entire program, and we have input into it. The faculty directors and professors are so open to student-voices and they let us have ownership of our education. We all have our own stories, and with me taking a break and coming back, and being in a bit of different space, it's been great to contribute and share mine.

I didn't realize how broad and vast public health was until I got here and learned everyone else's interests. Right now, there are just so many areas of public health to go into, that you can make a difference in. As I progress, I'm sure that at some point my personal path will become clearer, but I know it will be related to mental health. No matter what I'm doing in public health, I'll still have some mental health focus.

I'm taking five classes this semester, so I don't miss any opportunities. We've got two core classes that the whole cohort is in. At first I moaned and groaned about the biostatistics course, but now I'm super grateful to have that experience. I'm also taking an Environmental Health and Sustainability course that's a bit out of my element, but again, I'm learning so much. And of course, my class on interventions with Dr. John Piette - that's been a good growth opportunity. It's a little smaller in size, and I really love that intimate environment. It's something you don't get a lot of in undergraduate studies. I've been able to get to know my classmates more.

I have been so moved hearing my classmates' stories, inside and outside of class. Sharing has been such an important part of our journey, and it was what we need as a cohort, to reinforce the idea that this is pretty special, but also to build our community. Gary Harper's 'Community, Culture and Social Justice in Public Health' course, which is social justice and public health focused, is where we started to build a bit of that. In it, we explore community interventions, and Dr. Harper just does such a good job holding space for each and every one of us.

I'm a big believer in the power of groups and vulnerability. That's why I co-founded a student support group for undergraduate students at Michigan Public Health called "Healthy Dialogue." At first, I didn't have too much of a vision for the support space other than trying to connect with fellow students and create an environment to 'just be.' The undergraduate staff was super supportive in getting the ball rolling and I really appreciated that. Now, it's really turned into something, and I'm grateful for the many new friends that have dropped by and taken time out of their busy lives to get together. I always try to provide some tasty treats, and I'm always looking for more participants!

I think the leading career path for me right now is something psychology related, maybe community psychology. I'm interested in it as a framework, and how we understand and leverage the different mechanisms that are involved in the psyche of a community. I never thought about public health and psychology being connected like that before I came here. Now, I want to cultivate that connection. It's public health to a tee, giving back in a social justice-oriented way through population health work. I credit this school to opening my eyes to that.

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