Student Spotlight: How Did MacKenzie O’Kane’s Experience Working with Justice-Involved Families Inform her Public Health Career? 

#UMNMCH student MacKenzie O’Kane; she/her/hers (MPH 2023) wrote this reflection on how her coursework, internship, and professional development opportunities have launched her career in public health. 


I took a rather winding path to the University of Minnesota (UMN) School of Public Health and its Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Program. After graduating from Xavier University with a Bachelor’s in Biology in 2017, I chose to spend a year focusing on my passions for social justice, spirituality, leadership, and community with the St. Joseph Worker Program in St. Paul, Minnesota. All the while, I had my eye on the UMN School of Public Health, but I wanted to wait to pursue my master’s until I had narrowed down a population or health issue of interest. For the next few years, I applied my skills in fundraising and volunteer coordination at a handful of non-profit organizations in the Twin Cities metro, serving various populations: asylum seekers, local youth, and sexual and reproductive health patients. 

What eventually prompted me to write my application to UMN MCH was reading stories during the early COVID-19 pandemic of women and birthing people who had to forgo their birth plans and deliver their babies alone, without their partners, doulas, or other support people. After landing at UMN MCH, I’ve learned of even more populations and public health issues that interest me, one of them being justice-involved families. Today, I consider myself a public health generalist and am less concerned with narrowing down to a particular health issue or population. I am glad to have taken a circuitous path to public health because I’ve drawn upon my varied experiences and interests in every class and professional opportunity thus far. My path prepared me well for my Center internship with the Minnesota Model Jail Practices Learning Community, which, in turn, served as a launching pad for my public health career.

Twice the Support 

A unique aspect of my deployment was that I was lucky enough to have one supervisor from the Minnesota Department of Health, Anna Lynn, MPP, and one from the UMN Department of Pediatrics, MCH alumni Dr. Rebecca Shlafer (MPH 2016). Anna and Rebecca are co-directors of the Minnesota Model Jail Practices Learning Community to Support Children of Incarcerated Parents, and they jointly supervised my participation on the team. With their guidance, I was able to grow my skills in data analysis, facilitation, technical assistance, and evaluation. Even though much of what I was doing on the project was new to me, my supervisors cultivated a supportive learning environment in which I felt safe to take on new responsibilities incrementally. By the end of my time with the project, I had learned so much about the corrections environment, local resources for supporting children of incarcerated parents, and evidence-based methods for limiting harm to justice-involved families.

Improving the Visiting Experience for Justice-Involved Families

The goal of this project is to improve the quantity and quality of parent-child contacts for children of parents who are incarcerated in Minnesota county jails, which strengthens the relationships within justice-involved families and works to address health outcomes related to parental incarceration. The project aims to meet this goal by applying model practices, tested by the National Institute of Corrections in prisons, to the county jail setting. Compared to prisons, people often have shorter stays in jails because they are being held for a minor offense or are awaiting trial. For this reason and others, there is significantly less infrastructure for visiting an incarcerated family member in jail than in prison. Some of our work with the county jails included conducting environmental scans, making recommendations for family-friendly lobbies and visiting areas, and making recommendations of developmentally appropriate books that the jails could place on paired library carts – so both the child and the parent could hold their own copy of the book and read together. 

Throughout my time as the intern on the project, I also helped adapt a survey originally written for educational settings for the staff of the six county jails. This involved digitizing the paper survey, re-writing aspects of the questions to better match the corrections setting, formatting the survey in REDCap for online distribution and data collection, piloting the tool with the MN Jails Learning Community, and launching the survey to the staff of the six partner jails. 

Working with Communities and Systems by Facilitating Partnerships 

The technical assistance and grant fulfillment role provide a perfect platform for addressing identified gaps in the service system. Our team was uniquely positioned to connect the jail staff at the six partner sites to an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral parent management skills training program designed specifically for incarcerated parents called Parenting Inside Out (PIO). Early in my deployment, I was pleasantly surprised by the time and energy jail staff partners devoted to this portion of the grant work, finding time to run this program for those interested. As the state of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to improve, the partner sites will soon be able to partner with local Early Childhood Family Education offices, schools, and public health to provide PIO in the community to family members of folks who are incarcerated or for folks who began the program while they were incarcerated to continue the curriculum. 

The Launching Pad for a Public Health Career

My Center deployment pushed me to explore new areas of public health and connected me to professional development opportunities. Two highlights of my deployment with MDH and UMN MCH were attending the 2022 Making Lifelong Connections Conference (MLC) in San Diego, California, and presenting a poster detailing my work with the Minnesota Model Jail Practices Learning Community. Mine was the only poster that highlighted work with justice-involved families, and I believe the uniqueness of this project helped strengthen my application. The professional development sessions as well as the formal and informal networking opportunities with current and former MCH trainees were priceless. In just a few days, I expanded my professional network by forty people, spanning nearly every subdiscipline of MCH from all over the country. 

Just one month after MLC 2022, while interviewing for Applied Practice positions and part-time work last spring, the first thing anyone wanted to talk about was my jails internship. Having honed my summary of the internship through giving a poster presentation and my elevator pitch in an Making Lifelong Connections career skill-building workshop, I was ready and primed with talking points about my transferable skills and what set me apart from other candidates. I sailed into the summer between my first and second year of the MCH MPH program with competing offers and decided to accept a role with the Midwest Training and Education Center (MATEC), Serving Minnesota and Iowa, which is housed within SPH’s Division of Epidemiology and Community Health. Now, I work 30 hours per week as the HIV Education Program Assistant at MATEC and I will finish my MPH coursework in Summer 2023. Launching my public health career before I even finished my MPH seemed like a pipedream when I was working on my application in 2020, but I was able to make it a reality thanks to the skills learned and professional opportunities I was provided through my Center internship. 

MacKenzie is a second-year MPH student, majoring in MCH and minoring in Epidemiology. Her background is in biological sciences, social justice, non-profit fundraising, and community building. MacKenzie received her BS in biology from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She recently completed a year-long deployment with the Minnesota Model Jail Practices Learning Community sponsored by the Center for Leadership Education in Maternal and Child Public Health. In her spare time, she loves to explore new hiking trails with her fiancée, sing in an LGBTQ+ community chorus, and volunteer for the year-of-service program she participated in after her undergraduate studies. Currently, she is the HIV Education Program Assistant at the Midwest AIDS Training and Education Center, Serving Minnesota and Iowa, which is housed in the Epidemiology and Community Health Division of the School of Public Health. Upon graduation, MacKenzie intends to continue integrating her passions for clinical education, data analysis, and collaborative public health work.

–Read Student Spotlight archives 

Interested in learning more about getting a degree in MCH? Visit our MCH Program page for more information

#UMNMCH #UMNproud #UMNdriven