By: Andy Petrovich, HBHE 2nd Year Student
Sharon P. Sheldon has been the Program Administrator at the Washtenaw County Public Health Department since 2002. She graduated from EMU with a self-designed degree of Business / Nutrition / Psychology. After working for four years, Sharon enrolled in SPH as an HBHE student.
Sharon discovered the most appealing aspect of public health during her prior work in a clinical setting. She was doing counseling and research on smoking cessation after graduating from EMU. She enjoyed the public health approach to the challenges of quitting smoking through health belief and behavior theories. "I was fascinated by the scientific understanding of addiction, health behaviors, and unlearning bad habits," Sharon says. "I was working under an MD who also had an MPH, and she encouraged me to pursue a career in public health."
According to Sharon, the most rewarding aspect of her current job is the opportunity to work at multiple echelons within the health system. "Public health is unique in the combination of its breadth and depth of impact, from ecological levels as diverse as families and communities to government and policy," she says. "We get to change many people at a time, not just single individuals, thus reducing disparities and leading to greater community change." She also cites the cost-effectiveness of the public health approach as a satisfying element of her work.
At WCPH, Sharon works on projects based on epidemiological surveillance. From the analysis of epidemiological data, goals for the department are set and the highest-priority areas and populations are identified. She notes the importance of implementing evidence-based best-practice approaches. Many of her programs are done via partnerships with other organizations; the outcomes of these collaborations include changes in the built environment of high-risk areas and Michigan Steps Up!
Among the significant challenges of her job, Sharon begins with budget uncertainty, particularly considering Michigan's current economic state: "Washtenaw County is relatively well-off, but there is always much to be done." This increases the need for data-driven approaches and accurate identification of highest-risk areas. The influx of non-English speaking residents in Washtenaw County also provides new challenges for the department.
Sharon points out that SPH helped prepare her for many of these challenges. "I found the cross-disciplinary core courses most useful" she says. "I also use the skills I learned in Community Organizing (HBHE 640) often. They help me identify opportunities for change."
For Sharon, there was no difficulty in finding a job after graduating. "I was already working full-time when at SPH, so my challenge was to keep my job and not get fired!" She also notes the benefit of working while taking courses, "I could immediately apply the things I learned in school, which helped strengthen my education."
Sharon explains that she got her current job due to a paradigm shift toward focusing on prevention. This prompted the need for someone with the macro-view that public health training provides and her position was created. Not only did this shift in focus land her a great job, but there are other benefits, as well. "Prevention is finally at the forefront, and this makes a great opportunity for SPH grads," she says. "There is so much to be done focusing on primary and secondary prevention."
When asked if she had any advice for current students or recent graduates, Sharon emphasized the importance of networking. She suggests using internships and volunteer work not only as a means to meeting people with similar interests, but also checking out different areas of work. "Don't be afraid to pursue a job that isn't your dream job," she advises. "Dream jobs don't happen overnight."