When I first learned about PLEN as a sophomore at St. Lawrence University, I thought of it as being a great opportunity to network and be proactive. I remember looking through the PLEN website thinking that I would not be able to travel in the middle of the semester as well as the course registration. I put the seminar idea aside, being trapped in my semester routine. As my sophomore year went by, I would be constantly reminded of PLEN by friends who would attend different seminars throughout the year.
When my junior year came around, I looked into PLEN once again and, with the help of my institution and the local chapter, I decided to apply for the Women in Health Policy seminar. I was eager to partake in networking and salary negotiation workshops; I was fascinated by a list of such influential panel speakers and their immense experience in the field of public health. However, I had fears. As an international student, how much would I know about US health policy? As a student with a background in anthropology, how much would I contribute to the congressional hearing simulation activity? As a reserved person, how much would I be able to make connections with other participants if the group would turn out to be cliquey? These and many more questions would be twisting in my head as I was on my flight to DC. At the time, I was attending the seminar with two other girls from my institution who certainly calmed down my anxieties.
In the morning of the first day of the seminar, our big group was walking all together from the hotel to the metro station and I was one of many trying to talk to others rather than staying within the groups from their institutions. That was a good and comforting sign for me. The seminar started with a workshop on networking led by a young and vibrant professional lobbyist. Allyson Perleoni shared comprehensive tips for networking from A to Z. I found that refresher on networking to be particularly applicable and timely at the beginning of the seminar, this boosted my confidence quite significantly. I felt comfortable talking to panelists later that day and following up on those connections.
Aside from notable speakers, panelists, and presenters on the first day, I learned a lot about the young participants of the seminar. Having several international students, including myself, in the room with local students from various backgrounds and with distinct beliefs was particularly empowering. Some of these young women were close to completing their nursing degree, others were at the beginning of their bachelor degree. Such a wide variety of passionate women created a welcoming atmosphere for all kinds of questions and comments-- which I did not expect but truly hoped for.
A variety of majors, institutions and backgrounds reiterated the idea that health policy is something that directly affects each and every member of society. Moreover, coming from a completely distinctive Russian health care system, I was able to compare the challenges that both systems face. The health clinics and hospital closings in rural areas are huge issues for both countries. Similarly, drug addiction and opioid epidemics dominate the health care sector of both countries. Learning about these common struggles from first-hand experience of professionals on the front line of the policymaking process was particularly enlightening.
Besides learning from the guest speakers, I took a piece of advice from PLEN facilitators and tried to build connections with other participants of the seminar. I had some wonderful conversations with these young women who were, indeed, willing to listen before judging. More often than not, I would be asked to express my opinion on a certain political topic to share a Russian perspective. Although our conversations during PLEN would take a spin towards international politics, I felt that I was heard. Our conversations would start on health policy in general and go on tangents of various sectors of healthcare such as insurance policies and pharmaceuticals. I was particularly grateful for such honest talks.
PLEN also gave me an opportunity to reunite with alumni from both PLEN and St. Lawrence University. Meeting and connecting with young professional women from my alma mater was an incredible gift from PLEN. These three days were busy, but extremely rewarding and eventful. The idea of connecting was certainly a leitmotif of the seminar. However, the most important idea for me was the fact that there are different paths to the same goal.
Svetlana Kononenko is a junior at St. Lawrence University studying Anthropology and Neuroscience. She is an international student hoping to pursue a career in speech pathology. She attended PLEN Women in Health Policy in November 2019.