Natalie Vasilj and friends hiking

Natalie Vasilj

Executive PHAP

Natalie Vasilj is an Executive Public Health Administration & Policy MPH student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Natalie’s work focuses on improving the mental and behavioral health of women and children through a public health lens. Learn more about Natalie by reading her responses to the questions below.

First, tell me a little bit about yourself?
[Natalie] I went to the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN, and double majored in English and Psychology. Writing and qualitative research have been huge passions of mine and are tools I have found incredibly useful in my work in public health. When quality writing is used in public health communications, I’ve seen a true impact in behavior change in the communities I serve. We can use the power of narratives and storytelling along with quantitative data to better understand populations. Populations aren’t just numbers. They represent people with lived experiences, culture, and knowledge. Qualitative research provides an opportunity for  communities to co-create initiatives and strategies that better their health and well-being. 

What drew you to public health?
[Natalie] I was a behavioral therapist for children with autism, and in that space I witnessed a lot of barriers faced by my clients and their parents. These barriers were additional stressors in their lives that really impacted their quality of life. After seeing the impact systems had on the health and well-being of my clients, I found my way to public health where I took a position working for Washington County, Minnesota. In this position I work on addressing behavioral health through a public health lens, and it has completely shifted how I think about health and human development as a whole. 

What specific issue, problem, or area of research in public health do you care the most about and why?  [Natalie] I’ve been exploring the misdiagnosis of mental health disorders; specifically the misdiagnosis and underdiagnosis of ADHD in adult women. The way women express their symptoms can be very different from men, and it’s really important to figure out why so many women are inaccurately being diagnosed with anxiety when later they are found to actually be struggling with adult ADHD.

How would you like to help address or explore this issue?
[Natalie] Regardless of if I go into an administrative or research-based role providing policy recommendations, my MPH degree will give me the foundation to stretch my thinking and has already redefined how I view leadership. Due to COVID-19, public health has an opportunity to grow into a more equitable and informed practice, and I want to be part of that change. 

Are you currently involved in any public health research or professional work?
[Natalie] Currently, I’m part of the Prevention Wellness Training (PWT) Committee. We work on addressing student mental health through a public health lens. Our biggest initiative is the Mental Health Advocate program. This initiative provides training to staff and faculty at the University to recognize mental health issues in students and provide support to them as appropriate. We support staff and faculty in creating learning environments that support student mental health and educate them on recognizing mental health crises and signs of suicide. We surveyed students’ concerns and thoughts in fall 2021 and shared the feedback with U of M leadership. 

Why did you choose to come to the U of M School of Public Health?
[Natalie] The University of Minnesota School of Public Health was the only school I applied to because of the program’s hybrid structure. The U of M allowed me to continue working while taking classes. The U is also very respected for the leaders it produces, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What are the reasons why you chose your program? What do you like about it?
[Natalie]I really like the flexible schedule and variety of classes. I can take classes related to public health policy and planning and budgeting, and I can also take electives on climate change. To become a better leader in public health, I want to have a better understanding of all the areas that public health addresses to have greater awareness of how things work and where people are coming from. My program is a hybrid program so every semester we spend a few days on campus and being able to be in-person with a cohort is really nice. I love the flexibility of online classes, but still being able to have that in-person connection is really valuable. 

What has been your favorite class so far?
[Natalie] Planning and Budgeting with JP Leider [PubH6755]. He does such a good job of bringing conceptual learnings into real-life practice.

What do you like about being in Minnesota?
[Natalie] I love everything about Minnesota. I’ve lived in a lot of different places and really like to travel. So my favorite thing about Minnesota is that I’m never sad when a trip is over because it is the best place to come home to. I’m so grateful that I live here and really enjoy the nature, the people, and the changing seasons.

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