Family ways: Van Liew inspired by parents’ commitment to kids and community

Charlie Plain | August 15, 2014
Photo credit: Joe Finnegan

Graduate student Juliann Van Liew cares deeply about forging healthy families and was definitely thinking of her own when she decided to enroll in the School of Public Health (SPH).

Van Liew’s mother is a nurse and CEO of the community-oriented Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency. Her father is a global trekker who worked as a county attorney in Iowa to reform the local juvenile justice system.

“My mother and father are the reason I really got into public health,” says Van Liew. “Having parents working in social justice, health and community-building definitely gave me a public health perspective.”

Her parents’ influence and support inspired Van Liew to enter SPH’s maternal and child health program and develop her own niche interests, most notably in breastfeeding and promoting it through the WHO’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.

Her efforts recently caught the attention of the Minnesota Public Health Association (MPHA) and earned the 26 year old its 2014 Student Achievement Award.

“The Minnesota Public Health Association does a lot of really incredible work, so it’s great the organization recognizes the efforts of young people like me,” says Van Liew.

Food for thought

Van Liew’s been keenly aware of breastfeeding’s importance since childhood. That’s because her mother made sure Van Liew understood that she personally benefited from the practice.

“Growing up, whenever I’d get an A on a test, my mom would say ‘that’s because you were breastfed!’,” jokes Van Liew.

In 2012, Van Liew began working to promote the practice by volunteering with the Minnesota Breastfeeding Coalition.

There, she performed surveys of Minnesota hospitals and maternity centers to see how many of them were designated or working to become WHO certified “Baby-Friendly” facilities.

Baby-Friendly hospitals follow a 10-step program to help mothers of newborns successfully breastfeed. The steps include requirements of skin-to-skin contact between baby and mother within the first hour of birth, properly trained staff and eliminating the practice of providing parents with free samples of baby formula. Only four Baby-Friendly designated hospitals exist in Minnesota.

It was Van Liew’s work with the coalition and the Baby-Friendly initiative that prompted her adviser, Professor Wendy Hellerstedt, to nominate her for the MPHA Student Achievement Award.

“Juliann worked with the coalition for almost two years, developing and conducting surveys about breastfeeding practices in Minnesota,” says Hellerstedt. “Then she translated that work into a very strong final master’s project and has presented her findings to interested professionals.”

Undesirable disparities

Just as Van Liew’s mother inspired her interest in breastfeeding, her father seems to have unearthed her desire to solve global health disparities.

“In my family when you graduate from high school, you get to go on a rugged backpacking trip with my father,” says Van Liew. “In my case, we went to really remote parts of Ecuador.”

There, Van Liew saw many examples of poverty and healthcare disparity and it’s given her the itch to work abroad to address them, starting in the Middle East.

“I spent the summer of 2012 in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which was a phenomenal experience, and it is now my favorite place in the world,” says Van Liew.

Ready to succeed

Van Liew graduated this spring, and with her degree now in hand, she’s eager to launch her public health career.

No doubt the MPHA award winner will have a long and impressive career, and throughout it she says she’ll once again aspire to follow her parents’ caring, community-minded example.

“If I can make half of the impact either of my parents have made, then I will consider my life a success,” she says.

~ Post by Charlie Plain

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