Robert Brehm is a first-year Public Health Administration & Policy MPH student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Before coming to SPH, Robert worked and volunteered abroad in a number of countries for a variety of community-based and public health adjacent organizations. Learn more about his experiences by reading his responses to the questions below.
If a close friend asked you why you’re studying public health, what would you tell them?
[Robert] I was first exposed to the stark realities of public health concerns while I was in Peru working on a development project. I started having some chest pains and the local doctors believed I was having a heart attack. They began rushing me around to a bunch of hospitals in Arequipa. While that was happening, I got to see what it was like in public hospitals in a developing country. After this experience, my interest in public health began to develop, and got the wheels turning in my mind.
Where did you attend undergrad and what was your degree/area of study?
[Robert] I received my Master’s in Global Policy Studies at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, and my Bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University of Denver in History and Anthropology. Between undergrad and my first master’s, I worked near La Paz, Bolivia with a community development organization, and I also lived/worked in Peru, where I was an after-school english teacher, and helped run a school for underprivileged kids in Arequipa.
What public health issues do you care most about and why?
[Robert] My main public health interest centers on the intersection of health policy and politics. It’s important to know how politicians make sense of health policy, how they convey that to the general public, and how in turn, the public interprets that information. I’m very interested in how the average American digests public health information, and how that influences their political choices and their votes. I’m also interested in the contrast between urban and rural environments, and how we can work to develop healthier cities.
Also, in my second year of my first master’s degree, I helped write a book on social policy in Latin America. The chapter was called, “Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorders in Latin America” and the book was titled, “Emerging Policy Practices in Latin America.” Writing that chapter was when my focus started to shift towards public health, and I decided to apply to MPH programs to develop the necessary expertise to pursue more in-depth public health research.
Why did you choose the University of Minnesota School of Public Health?
[Robert] When I was going through the application process, Danielle Sackstein, program coordinator, and Rebecca Wurtz, associate professor and program director, really made me feel welcome. I am also interested in the research being conducted by Professor Lynn Blewett and Associate Professor Sarah Gollust, and I am excited to work with them in the future. I’m interested in the policies and politics of healthcare in the upper midwest, where politics has become so polarized, and the U of M School of Public Health has a finger on that pulse. I really like the courses in the Public Health Administration and Policy (PHAP) curriculum, it seems to be really grounded in how policies are made from the ground up.
How have you been coping with COVID-19? What have you learned about yourself through this experience?
[Robert] I’m concerned that although the pandemic has affected the entire world in a really serious way, COVID is just a dress rehearsal for other global public health issues like climate change. We need to figure out better ways to work together to keep each other healthy and safe, and to take better care of the environment. I hope that we don’t look back on today and think, as terrible as 2020 has been, that these were actually relatively mild events. As a grad student, life with COVID has been a challenge, and I know it’s a challenge for my professors as well, so it’s important to be patient with each other and work through this.
Lastly, what do you like about being in Minnesota?
[Robert] I spent a summer in Minnesota in high school at a friend’s lake cabin, and I’ve always considered it my second favorite state behind my home state of Colorado. Like the last two cities I lived in (Denver and Austin), I am again living in the capital of the state, which always makes me feel like I am not far from where the important decisions are being made. Also, my all-time favorite band, Trampled by Turtles, is from Duluth, MN, one of my favorite cities in the U.S.