Students of Public Health: Learning to Prioritize Responsibilities

by Michelle Haberstroh

Students of Public Health: Voices & Profiles focuses on research projects and other contributions students are making to advance public health.

Haberstroh Students of Public Health

2016 University of Illinois Springfield Graduation

Student Voices — In the third grade, I began living with my grandparents. Prior to this, I attended school irregularly, and even after I started living with them, I consistently struggled to complete homework and did poorly in school. I credit my grandma for changing my life, because she took initiative and changed the house rules to help and encourage me. I can hear her telling me now, as I sit at my kitchen table pondering my next grad school assignment, “Shelly, you love homework.” Whenever I got home from elementary school, I had to complete all my homework before I could go outside and play with my friends. I don’t recall exactly when my desire to do well academically changed, but I attribute it to my grandmother’s conditioning and how she taught me to prioritize my responsibilities, a gift I will be grateful for forever. 

As a first-generation college student, my grandparents constantly emphasized the importance of education, hard work, and the need to strive for greatness. They consistently supported all my academic endeavors and encouraged me to find a profession I enjoyed. It was never a question of if I would attend college but what college I would attend. Throughout my undergraduate career at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS), my program advisors and professors in the Capitol Scholars Honors Program stressed the importance of an interdisciplinary education. I participated in several student organizations and was president of the Baking Club for two years. I found it easy to succeed at my coursework, thanks to the prioritizing skills my grandmother taught me. I graduated magna cum lade and earned my undergraduate degree in Communication in just three years. Whenever I accomplish something academically, it feels like a collective achievement for my entire family, which has always encouraged me.

However, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my degree or how to apply it to a future career. Growing up, I always imagined myself becoming a high school math teacher, but after taking several education courses, I chose not to pursue that path. At UIS, I volunteered with Camp Invention, a summer STEM program for elementary students, and that’s when I realized I wanted to pursue a career that incorporated both math and science. I focused my undergraduate research project on sex trafficking in South Asia and utilized public health and communication as my core disciplines. This project greatly influenced my decision to pursue a joint graduate degree in Human Services with a concentration in Child and Family Studies and Public Health with a certification in Epidemiology. I’m still not sure where my career will take me, but I hope to find meaningful work that combines my two disciplines.

When I started graduate school, my younger brother began living with me, which further emphasized the importance of prioritizing needs in order to juggle my family, work, and academic responsibilities. Shortly thereafter, in March 2017, I began a Graduate Public Services Internship with the Small Business Environmental Assistance Program (SBEAP) at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO).  Here multiple opportunities have presented themselves, and I was able to take a tour of the Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Tunnel and the McCook Reservoir. 

My internship with SBEAP focuses on air quality regulations and permitting requirements. Here I’ve learned about lead hazards in homes and abatement regulations, and my professor, Dr. Youngjin Kang, has encouraged me to pursue research further. With her assistance, I presented research on how childhood lead exposure influences family relationships at the Student Technology, Arts and Research Symposium (STARS) at UIS. Additionally, I helped present research at the Illinois Council on Family Relations (ILCFR) 2019 Annual Conference on maternal incarceration and intergenerational relationships between custodial grandparents, adolescents, and mothers, concentrating primarily on how to bridge barriers to respect, resiliency, reciprocity, and responsibility during and after incarceration. 

This academic year, I chose to quit my side job as a waitress to delve more deeply into my educational endeavors: I joined the American Public Health Association (APHA) and sought out leadership positions within the Physical Activity (PA) section. I am currently the vice-chair for the membership committee and student liaison for communications. During the APHA PA mentoring event, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Justin Moore, who introduced me to the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and offered me an internship with JPHMP Direct. Since beginning my internship, I have had the opportunity to explore more of my passions. For the past few months, I’ve worked on several projects at Direct, including interviewing JPHMP editorial board members, Dr. Kate Beatty and Benedict Truman. Additionally, I interviewed Dr. Robert Hahn about a systematic review he co-authored on examining the effectiveness of year-round school calendars on improving educational attainment outcomes within the context of advancement of health equity. I’ve also developed a number of infographics, including this one: Opioid Abuse Prevention and Treatment: Lessons from South Carolina. I’ve helped create and schedule content for social media and a monthly newsletter. But the most time-consuming and rewarding project I’ve completed has been researching lead exposures found in our own homes and writing about it on Direct. See “Are You Being Exposed to Lead Poisons in Your Own Home?JPHMP has broadened my research interests and opened up new opportunities I hadn’t considered.   

Overall, an interdisciplinary focus has allowed me to gain a broad variety of skillsets and knowledge applicable to several different areas of study. More than ever, my experiences this semester have taught me the importance of having good self-discipline and staying on top of my schedule. Although it’s important to take advantage of all opportunities, my advice to others is to first be sure you can manage time to prioritize responsibilities well in a way that won’t be a detriment to your personal health and well-being, and make sure you enjoy the work that you do.

Michelle Haberstroh is a graduate student at the University of Illinois Springfield, pursuing an MPH with a certification in Epidemiology and an MA in Human Services with a concentration in Child and Family Services.