Students Who Rocked Public Health: Jennifer Bender

by Jennifer Bender


Last December, Jennifer Bender, an MPH student at Des Moines University, was listed as one of 13 Students Who Rocked Public Health in 2019 for helping to lead a collaboration between her hospital employer, Human Service Agency, and Boys & Girls Club to provide community education on drug misuse. Here, she describes her efforts in more detail. Follow along each month as we profile all 13 Students Who Rocked Public Health 2019.

Collaboration – that is the common theme across the community health projects I am a part of in Watertown, South Dakota. I was born and raised just three hours south of this northeast corner of the state. As a lifelong South Dakotan, I know this region relatively well. Residents are proud of their independence but work together for common causes across our state. This rings true in Watertown, where elected officials, experts, and community members work to find solutions to our community’s shared challenges.  

The South Dakota Department of Health delivers public health services, like tobacco cessation and prevention programs, through a network of regional and county offices. Rural communities often look to local hospitals to lead public health initiatives. This is where I come in. I am the Director of Marketing at a prospective payment system (PPS) facility in Watertown. In 2018 when I started my Master of Public Health program at Des Moines University (DMU), I aspired to find a career I loved and to make a difference in the public’s health. 

A lot has happened in two years. When I assumed my current position a year ago, I assigned team duties to make sure I would be able to work on community health projects as part of my responsibilities. A key component of having enough bandwidth to make an impact is building the right relationships. My first collaborated project was the Opioid and Vaping Community Forum. I relied on my formal education at DMU and professional experience to grow a partnership between my employer, Prairie Lakes Healthcare System; the Watertown Human Service Agency; the Boys & Girls Club of Watertown; the Watertown School District; and the Avoid Opioid campaign. We worked together to create the event, which included a vaping presentation by a pulmonologist, a testimonial on recovery from an opioid substance misuse disorder, and a Q&A session with a panel of local experts, including a drug court judge, pain therapy specialist, law enforcement officer, pharmacist, and mental health counselors. 

The Opioids and Vaping Forum in Watertown, South Dakota.

What I learned from the experience is how to work as a team to achieve an objective. I was not the expert on the effects of opioids or vaping; however, my health education and promotion concentration at DMU empowered me to make a difference. I now have relationships I can grow and leverage because I reached out to other stakeholders in the community. Speaking on relationships, I became the Public Information Officer for the Watertown Area COVID-19 Task Force earlier this year. Together I work with local health care entities, elected officials, law enforcement, businesses, and more to communicate information to our community. It is an additional responsibility and a challenge, but I have met many stakeholders in our community’s health. 

A task force moment I am proud of was connecting our local multicultural center to information in order to disperse appropriate communications to our Spanish-only speaking residents. Many of these residents are immigrants and work on large dairy farms. Reaching our residents with social determinants of health is of special interest to me. By building relationships I hope to continue to spark conversations and collaborate to improve community equity and empower residents to be healthy. I am grateful to DMU for teaching me how to create programs and projects based on evidence. This will be especially beneficial when l complete my capstone project next year. I have so many ideas, and now I have relationships in the community to make a positive impact.  

My advice to others pursuing an MPH degree or wanting to make a difference in their communities is to get out of your comfort zone. That is when most growth happens; at the same time, meeting new people, asking questions, and active listening can make us vulnerable, but it’s a good way to stretch and build new skills. As a natural introvert, it’s important, too, that I know when I need time to unwind and reflect. I recommend spending some time to get to know yourself before jumping in feet first. Remember, a good relationship needs ongoing attention, and this includes the relationship you have with yourself.  

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Jennifer Bender is an MPH student at Des Moines University pursing her degree in the Health Education and Promotion concentration. Her pursuit of knowledge has grown her career as the Director of Marketing at a rural health system in Watertown, SD, as she manages the Community Health Needs Assessment’s implementation plan.