A key to a successful career in public health is to make connections and foster relationships. For more than 20 years, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health has bridged the connection between students and practitioners through its mentor program.
The program hosted a small number of students when it began in 1995. Now, the program has grown to include more than 200 students every year and has incorporated distance mentoring to pair students with mentors around the country. The program has been honored with Minnesota Business Magazine’s Leaders in Health Care honor for Education and Workforce Development for engaging and training workers for the future of Minnesota’s health care industry.
“The best learning comes from the interaction you have with other professionals,” says Carol Berg, longtime mentor and former public health manager at UCare.
Connecting to the Field
For many students, the mentor program was one of the reasons they chose Minnesota for their public health degree. “I knew it would help me make the right connections and allow me to grow in the industry,” says public health administration and policy student Makshita Luthra.
“There is so much collaborative work that goes on in public health,” says Janny Brust, MPH ’87, a longtime mentor and former director of medical policy and community affairs for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. “The mentor program is another collaboration that allows for extended learning, for both the mentor and the mentee.”
From setting up an informational interview for the student to offering advice on which courses to take, mentors help students confidently move forward in their careers. “I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do after I finished my degree, so it’s been helpful to hear about my mentor’s path and know that it’s OK to not know where you’re going and to just take advantage of every opportunity” says community health promotion student Emily Murphy.
Mentors Pay It Forward
Mentors find the program works both ways, and they gain a valuable experience in interacting with the next generation. “In the community, we’re responsible for training and guiding these students, but these students also show us what’s happening in the field through the things they’re learning in school,” says Gary Greenfield, a family planning grants manager at the Minnesota Department of Health.
For mentors, the program is a way to recognize the role that mentors played in their own lives. “While in dental school, my mentors encouraged me to get a PhD in public health and helped find funding for my education,” says Ken Zakariasen, PhD ’78, a distance mentor who is a professor at Kent State University College of Public Health. “My mentors made my career possible and expected nothing in return.”
“I learned public health was the right path for me during informational interviews,” says Amy LaFrance, MPH ’06, chair of the alumni board’s mentoring committee and principal research project manager at HealthPartners Institute. “I’m so grateful for what my mentors opened my eyes to, and I wanted to pay that forward.”
“My mentor helped connect me to job openings and understand the application process at the Minnesota Department of Health,” says Annie Fedorowicz, MPH ’12, who is an adult immunization coordinator at MDH.
“It’s important to shape, guide, and inspire the new public health professionals,” says Kristi Jones, MPH ’03, director of community services programs at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health. “There are a lot of challenges in our field and it’s important that people have support from the beginning and enter the field well prepared.”
“Ultimately, a mentor is a great sounding board,” says LaFrance. “They aren’t your teachers or your parents, they just really help you grow professionally and help you achieve your goals. For both students and mentors, it’s high reward, low risk.”
Tips for a Good Mentor/Mentee Relationship
We asked mentors and mentees what helped them have a positive and productive relationship. Here are their pieces of advice.
Advice for mentors
- Ask mentees what they want out of the experience.
- Listen to your mentee’s dreams and identify ways to you can help advance them.
- Respond to your mentees when they reach out. Even if it’s outside of the regularly scheduled meeting.
- Suggest meeting in interesting locations, such as a brewery or a sporting event.
Advice for mentees
- It’s your job to reach out to the mentor. They’re waiting to help you. Make the connection.
- Be open to your mentor’s schedule and communicate with them
- The program is what you make of it. Have goals and a plan, and you’re more likely to have a rich experience.
- Be honest and straightforward. Your mentor isn’t grading you!