A few weeks before the PLEN Women in Health Policy seminar, my advisor frantically emailed me about the fast-approaching scholarship application deadline. She didn’t want me to get my hopes up, but she thought this seminar would be a perfect opportunity for me and I should definitely apply. Another one of her students had attended a PLEN seminar in the past and it had been a truly life-changing experience for her. Moreover, my advisor is familiar with my struggle to find a strong public health or health policy community at Oberlin. Although health care permeates much of coursework as a Politics major, and many of my fellow pre-medical students share my interest in public health issues, the absence of a public health, global health, or health policy program at our school often means there is not a space for to discuss careers in these fields.
Both my advisor and I were excited about the possibility that PLEN’s seminar could be a venue for me to meet peers and decision-makers in the health policy field. I felt I needed to attend PLEN’s seminar because I could hear from women who have built careers in health care and government, and I knew I could learn from their trajectories and advice. At the very least, I believed this seminar would allow me to grow my knowledge of health policy careers externally, so I could bring that valuable insight back to the Oberlin community. Lucky for me, since I did in fact get my hopes up about going, PLEN was able to offer me a scholarship to attend and I was headed to Washington D.C. not long after I applied.
The seminar involved a very busy couple of days, packed with panels. I could take something helpful away from every panel, regardless of whether the panelists worked in an area of health care or the government that I am specifically interested in working myself. For example, part of what I learned from the “Careers on Capitol Hill” panel is that many of the women who are decision-makers on health care issues at the capitol did not begin their careers as health care experts. They instead entered into the health policy arena by working in the offices of Congressmen and women and advising on many policy issues; over time they developed expertise on health law and policy as well as productive relationships with important committee members and staff. Hearing from these panelists about their capitol hill experience helped me to contextualize the advice that I, and I think many other young people interested in politics receive, that “you must always start on the Hill.” I know that my ambition lies closer to the health care side of health policy, so a career starting off on Capitol Hill, where I would not immediately be able to specialize in health care, might not be the right place for me.
Previously, I had thought that starting out on Capitol Hill was an essential step to working on any sort of policy in D.C., but the “Careers on Capitol Hill” panelists suggested that an alternate pathway was to become well-versed in a health policy issue set of issues working off the Hill and eventually be able to advise policy-makers as an expert. This seminar opened my eyes to several different paths to health policy, one of which, is working in an agency. Many of the panelists repeated the idea that if you wanted to get “into the weeds” and specialize on certain policy issues, such as telehealth or Medicaid, the agency route might be the best to go. This was particularly enlightening for me because I have had concerns about my ability reconcile my goal of getting my MD/MPH and working as a clinician, with my desire to someday work on nationwide policy. Since I am planning on being both a healthcare worker and decision-maker, I hope that my experience working with patients and in the field will empower the decisions that I make.
One positive aspect of the seminar that I did not consider before I attended, is the importance of learning about networking, salary negotiations, and the complex health policy landscape, collectively with my cohort of other PLEN attendees. The power dynamic in healthcare is informed by the fact that nurturing tasks are inherently gendered, and women often do the bulk of labor in healthcare industry but do not hold the bulk of leadership roles. Many of the tasks that women perform are socially denigrated simply because they are performed by women and this reinforces the de-legitimizing of women’s voices in the healthcare sphere. Unfortunately, this power dynamic can be incredibly intimidating as a young woman going into health care. One of the beautiful things about PLEN is that you are able to meet many highly motivated young women hoping to make a difference in the same field as you. This helps to build solidarity and confidence for women going into health careers and creates a pool of knowledge about potential career paths and internship opportunities, that can be cooperative, not competitive. I was excited to find out most of the students in my PLEN cohort were seniors like me, so we could commiserate about how scary it will be to move on from our undergrad safety nets. Additionally, the networking and professional development process that is so integral to the PLEN experience would be considerably more intimidating without the company of the rest of the other PLEN women.
I have been determined to pursue a career in healthcare and policy for the majority of my undergraduate career, but in the past, it has been difficult to understand that goal as framework for which career choices I should make. I think that PLEN’s health policy seminar had me evaluate which skills I most want to develop in my future positions, and it kicked me into high gear about working to get the positions I most want. I am so grateful to the PLEN organizers, speakers, and my fellow attendees for helping sort out some of the important choices I need to make this year. I can’t wait to see what the other women from my cohort go on and do!
Sarah Bouquin is a senior majoring in Politics and fulfilling her pre-medical requirements at Oberlin College, with the goal of pursuing a joint MD/MPH degree post her graduation in May 2018. Off campus, she enjoys mentoring high school students, working in her campus-wide cooperative system, and researching campaign trends for the Oberlin Politics department. She attended the PLEN Women in Health Policy seminar with help from a scholarship sponsored by Heidi Shoenberg-Cobert. She is passionate about health policy and would love to work on increasing access to rural and tele-healthcare, community health centers, and harm reduction programs. One day she hopes to work in clinical health care and form statewide health policy in her home state of New Mexico.