Natalie Schmidt is a second-year Public Health Administration & Policy MPH student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Read her responses to the questions below to understand what drives her work in public health and to learn more about her experience as a graduate student at the School of Public Health.
First, let’s get to know a little bit about you as a person. Where did you grow up? Where did you attend undergrad and what was your degree/area of study?
[Natalie] I’m from South Minneapolis, born and raised. I went to St. Scholastica College, a very small college in Duluth, MN. I originally went there for nursing school, but soon decided I wanted to work towards medical school. I was working in a physical therapy clinic in Edina, MN, after graduation (pre-covid), and I began seeing how broken the healthcare system is. As a physician, I would only be able to treat patients that could afford to come see me, but I wanted to change the system, not perpetuate its inequities.
What was that moment in your life when you decided you wanted to study public health?
[Natalie] I think the moment I became serious about public health was when I worked at the physical therapy clinic and began noticing a disconnect between patients and providers, including lack of trust, language barriers, cultural insensitivities. I could tell patients were uncomfortable not seeing any providers who looked like them. Our clinicians were all white, able-bodied individuals, but we had a very diverse patient population. I felt like our clinic was perpetuating this societal problem around the inability to access culturally competent care, and I felt guilty even being a part of it.
So, I completed the Public Health Core Concepts Certificate at the School of Public Health and went on to pursue an MPH degree in Public Health Administration & Policy. In undergrad everyone is doing the bare minimum to get by, but in graduate school you’re surrounded by others with the same passions and you’re collectively working towards improving health outcomes.
What specific issue, problem, or area of research in public health do you care most about and why? [Natalie] I have so many. In very broad terms my dream job is writing health policy for nonprofits. One of the biggest things I’ve realized is the connection between politics and public health. As SPH Professor Katy Kozhimannil says, “Health research will just sit on a shelf without policy, and policy without health research is dangerous.” Public health and public policy work hand in hand to create lasting change.
Another major interest of mine is the intersection of climate change, racism, and the effects on health outcomes. For example, lower income and racially diverse neighborhoods in Minneapolis have higher urban temperatures than their wealthy white counterparts. This is because they are mostly concrete and lack greenspace due to racist housing policies, redlining, and environmental racism. Higher temperatures increase respiratory related diseases which is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Our physical environments directly affect our health outcomes.
How would you like to help address or explore this issue?
[Natalie] Part of my solution to this problem would be making the community more aware of these problems. I’m very privileged to be in grad school and to even know about these issues. Public health is so ingrained in every aspect of life. Informing and educating others in the community is an important step towards change. Small actions often have a larger impact on the people who are being directly affected.
Are you currently involved in any public health research or professional work?
[Natalie] I’m just wrapping up an internship (education and outreach intern) with the Cancer Support Community (CSC) — a national organization based out of D.C. CSC educates people about cancer and policies to help people make sure their type of cancer is covered by insurance. We work with social workers and clinics to inform them on how to best support their patients. For example, when someone is told they have cancer, they receive materials to help them understand what’s next and what their rights are. We also offer a helpline and support groups. I loved working there and being 100% remote.
I’m also a legislative research assistant with the Health Research Department in the Minnesota House of Representatives. I’m working to build my legislative skills to make a lasting impact with health policy.
Why did you choose to come to the U of M School of Public Health?
[Natalie] I think one of the main reasons was that I’m from Minnesota. I did apply to a few out of state schools but being able to learn in the community that I’m from and the community that I want to serve was really important to me. Growing up in the neighborhood that I did, and witnessing all the inequities of that neighborhood, made me want to stay here to help fix it. The city has been stuck in this continuum of environmental injustices – it’s been just one thing after another.
What are the reasons why you chose your program? What do you like about it?
[Natalie] For me, a Public Health Administration & Policy MPH was broad enough to apply to many areas but the emphasis on policymaking made it an easy choice. Through electives, I can still take classes related to my other interests like maternal & child health, epidemiology, and biostatistics. All areas of public health are important, but research is pointless if nothing is done with it. Making sure it can be brought into policy is how we can make lasting change.
What has been your favorite class so far?
[Natalie] Katy Kozhimannil’s PubH 6735, Principles of Health Policy – essentially the whole class is focused on writing a health policy proposal on a health problem you would like to fix. We had the opportunity to work with local legislators, and it was rewarding to feel like the work we’re doing has a purpose. Some students within our class were able to partner with legislators who are going to help them make policy changes over the next couple years right here in our community.
In what ways is the school a good fit for you?
[Natalie] It’s been a little weird with all of last year being online but there are so many opportunities to engage with our cohort and I feel like I’ve known my classmates forever. The professors also create learning environments that feel safe and welcoming for everyone. They are truly here to help you succeed, and that support means the world to me.
What do you like about being in Minnesota?
[Natalie] The changing of the seasons builds good character and makes you resilient. I look forward to creating lasting change in public health policy to directly improve my community.