Guest post: Ellen Gormican on AMCHP and graduation

Guest blogger: Ellen Gormican

My experiences at the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs (AMCHP) annual conference in Washington D.C. have compelled me to confront some of the many dualities that I feel are particular to a student’s perspective in the world of Public Health. On the one hand, I have spent almost two years developing skills and building knowledge and key competencies in Public Health, yet as a student I continue to doubt my own knowledge. After attending AMCHP I am obliged to acknowledge my impending graduation and entrance into the professional world – an adjustment that, while frightening, appears more exciting and hopeful after participating in the 2011 AMCHP conference. As a student I am frequently asked to critique research, programs, methods, frameworks etc. because it is from this foundation of critical thinking that many Public Health competencies originate. I found that workshops at AMCHP provided the opportunity to hear perspectives from professionals presently knee-deep in the trenches. Whether focused on adolescent health, infant mortality or children with special health care needs, the AMCHP attendees shared a common passion and devotion to fighting for all that is maternal (and paternal) and child health. This atmosphere reminded me that in a few short months I will be considered a similar “professional” and that it might be time to shift my outlook from that of a student to that of a Public Health Change Agent.

The first pre-conference session I attended at AMCHP was an incredible way to start the conference. The session: What’s the REAL DEAL about the Role of Gender Norms in Teen Relationships? challenged me to consider how I conceptualize masculinity and gender roles and reminded me that my personal beliefs and values influence how I approach my professional responsibilities and shape my understanding of the social conditions in which our programs are designed and implemented. Continuing to question my own attitudes can only help to further my personal and professional development. The first step towards confronting assumptions and judgments is the admission that they exist within all of us.

I am fascinated with the study of human behavior – why we make certain choices or engage in particular behaviors – and I feel this topic to be central to good public health practice. While attending an extended session on preconception health the group explored how to access cognition and effectively “sell” a health message. As public health trainees (and enthusiasts) we review the data and the research and wonder how and why we are still debating many issues that, to us, seem – well – obvious. But in public health we try to paint a broader picture and our success lies in the art of merging disciplines to compel behavior change. The preconception health session encouraged us to consider product marketing as a persuasive too to be used to sell public health concepts, ideas, recommendations, etc to a broader (or sometimes narrower) audience. It is ironic that those of us in the health field could actually learn something from a company like McDonald’s.  In that session professionals from all over the U.S. shared their own successes and failures toward these ends.

Finally, another AMCHP session that aligned with my professional goals was a workshop on child and adolescent mental health. I am passionate about promoting mental health and wellbeing for our MCH populations and for improving access for services and reducing the stigma surrounding mental health conditions.  I feel that this is an area where a high need has been identified, but where there is little financial support. In spite of this, the professionals in the session spoke of their dedication to the field and the creative measures they use to promote mental wellbeing and to address the mental health assessment, education, service,  and treatment needs of their community. Many states face similar challenges in providing preventative mental health services I found the experience of connecting with others over the shared challenges and the creative solutions that MCH professionals have found across the country to be inspiring. The solidarity of professionals in the room filled me with a sense of hope for the future – both my future as a graduate and the future of the field for which I feel most passionate.

Although I was exposed to many new and fascinating programs, data and intervention strategies, what AMCHP gave me that was most unexpected was a powerful reminder of why I was drawn to the public health field and encouragement to believe in my personal capacity to be a contributing (and competent!) member of this legion of MCH professionals.  I attended the 2011 AMCHP conference as a mere student, but my experiences while there has let me to realize that soon I will no longer be able to fall back on the “student” defense when challenged with any of the many issues facing our Title V MCH colleagues across the country.  It’s my responsibility to march bravely forward:  I must never stop learning, never stop exposing myself to new ideas and never stop believing in my own ability to be successful in the professional world.

Ellen Gormican is an MPH graduate student in Maternal and Child Health at the University of Minnesota.  She expects to complete her degree in May 2011.