When I stepped out of Dulles International Airport, my first thought was that it had to be at least 10 degrees warmer than Vermont. My second was, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening.’ I first heard of PLEN when a friend forwarded an email from our school’s Center for Creativity, Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship with a note that said, Check out the heath policy thing at the bottom. The “health policy thing” turned out to be PLEN’s Women in Health Policy seminar and it sounded absolutely perfect. I started the application that afternoon and by dinner the next day, my application was in and it was out of my hands. Even after I was accepted, got my scholarship, purchased a plane ticket, and let my professors know I was missing class that week, it still didn’t quite feel real until I arrived in Washington DC.
I didn’t discover my passion for health policy until the end of my junior year. I’m an English major with a Global Health minor and I’ve never taken a single class in the Poli-Sci department. There has been a hundred times this year as I make post-graduation plans and think about grad school that I’ve thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m an English major for goodness sake!’ Plus, my work experience answering phones, making sandwiches, and chasing preschoolers doesn’t exactly scream health expert.
One of the most important things I learned at PLEN is that there really isn’t a single path to the life and career of your dreams. There were many women there who were studying poli-sci, but many who weren’t. Among the speakers, there were those who interned on the Hill while still in college and one who started as a secretary. It’s hard and it takes a lot of luck, but all of these women prove that it can be done. If they can do it, so can I.
Another thing I learned was just how broad ‘health policy’ really is. It touches everything and there are so many layers and nuances within the category. It’s like science, from the outside, people talk about science as if it was a mysterious monolithic entity when really, it’s physics and biology and chemistry, and those are just the lab sciences. Health policy is the same way. Before PLEN, I never realized how many different paths were possible within the health policy sphere.
My favorite part of PLEN was the transitions from one activity to the other, particularly when they involved metro travel. That isn’t to say that the panels and workshops weren’t great, they were 100% awesome and thought provoking but with so many people and limited time, the best time to talk about everything that swirling around my mind was in between scheduled activities, speed walking through parks or standing on escalators or scrambling into chairs.
I would find myself standing next to someone, apologize for asking her name again, unless she did so first, and then we would give each other a two-minute rundown of our background and interests. Then we would immediately launch into a conversation about the last speaker, or our research, or grad school plans. Some of my best and most interesting discussions happened in these moments, from sharing how we kept coming back to policy to talking about the underrated amazingness of midwives.
I particularly loved these short informal conversations because they made me feel like I fit right in. In the subway or on the escalator, I wasn’t an English major who had little exposure to policy issues, I was just another young woman who was passionate about the health problems facing our country and world. I could let go of my fear of saying the wrong thing and just talk about what I am passionate about. The more I thought about this, the easier it was to see what brought us together: our passion.
Seeing that passion was by far the most inspiring part of PLEN. It reminded me that skills can be learned, as long as you have the passion and the will to see it through; there is a path, even if you can’t see it immediately. On the second day, one of the speakers talked about how any path appears clear in hindsight but when you’re on it, it feels like stumbling in the dark. This really resonated with me because I often feel like my path is unclear or I’m going the wrong direction. PLEN not only helped me remember that there are many ways to get where you want to go but it also reminded me that it’s okay to feel lost and that just because you feel lost, doesn’t mean you are lost.
I am so grateful to have gotten the opportunity to attend the Women in Health Policy seminar. It was such an incredible experience, one that I can still hardly believe actually happened. I took a chance and it paid off 100%. There’s a lot to be said to going after what you want. It’s scary and sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you wanted but sometimes it works out perfectly. Sometimes you feel lost and confused about the future, but sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you are surrounded by people who are just as passionate as you are and you know that you are in exactly the right place.
Mercedes McMahon is a senior English major and Global Health minor at Middlebury College in chilly Vermont. She will graduate in February, 2019 and she attended the PLEN Women in Health Policy seminar in Washington DC with a scholarship sponsored by Ben Bruno. She is passionate about community-led health initiatives, improving maternal health, and making connections between domestic and international health policy. When she isn’t talking her friend’s ears off about the latest health policy news, she enjoys baking, knitting, and volunteering with local high schoolers.