Student Spotlight: How is Olivia Sullivan working to support incarcerated parents and their families with the Minnesota Department of Health?

#UMNMCH student Olivia Sullivan (MPH 2021) wrote this reflection on how her work with Dr. Rebecca Shlafer and recent deployment with the Minnesota Department of Health through the Center for Leadership Education in Maternal & Child Public Health have contributed to her experiences in the MCH Program.

Volunteering and Research in the MCH Program

I have broad interests in the field of Maternal and Child Health (MCH), but two areas I’m particularly passionate about are combating health inequities in gender and sexual minority (GSM) populations and incarcerated populations within MCH. These have a fair amount of overlap; communities of color and GSM communities are disproportionately represented in the carceral system in the United States.1

Since starting my MPH program, the support of many SPH faculty members has allowed me to pursue independent research in GSM health. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Dr. Rebecca Shlafer as a volunteer peer educator for the Women’s Health course at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Shakopee, as well as a member of a student research team looking at health education programs in carceral settings.2 These experiences have both deepened my knowledge of how our carceral system exacerbates health inequities, and prompted me to be part of the solution. While working on research for my Integrated Learning Experience (ILE) this semester keeps me busy, I was thrilled to be hired as the Expanding Model Practices in County Jails intern.

Expanding Model Practices in County Jails

Parental incarceration is the second most common adverse childhood experience (ACE) in Minnesota, according to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey (MSS). 3 The goal of the Expanding Model Practices in County Jails project – a joint endeavor between the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the University of Minnesota – is to comprehensively address health outcomes related to parental incarceration by supporting incarcerated parents in strengthening relationships with their families. One aspect of this project that I’m particularly excited about is the Parenting Inside-Out program, an evidenced-based practice that is going to soon be offered in several jails and prisons in the state.4 My role as the project intern is multifaceted and includes everything from administration to data analysis.

While it’s still early, I’m already amazed at how much I’ve been able to draw on my MCH coursework and put the knowledge I’ve gained to use during this internship. One of my first tasks was to create an evaluation plan for the project – I took a whole class on that! Even though all of our meetings are online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve still been able to make connections with public health professionals throughout Minnesota. The project is still relatively young, but I’m excited to be a part of it.



Olivia Sullivan is a second-year MCH MPH student. Her work is largely in gender and sexual minority (GSM) health. Olivia received her BA in Biology and Chinese, as well as a Concentration in Educational Studies, from St. Olaf College in 2018. She recently accepted a Model Practices in County Jails project intern position with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), where she’ll be supporting the team throughout the early stages of the project. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, cooking, and playing with her dog, Rey. After graduating, Olivia hopes to establish a career combating health inequities in marginalized MCH populations.

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