How it began
My journey into public health was not intentional; I stumbled into it as I navigated the stressful years of undergrad at U of T. I thought I would become a dentist when I entered university…I guess I thought I liked medicine and science, and I enjoyed working with tools. Logical career would be to become a dentist…I guess…?
Fortunately, a number of elective courses I enrolled into guided me to the world of public health, and into Epidemiology. One such public health course, had a beautiful quote at the beginning of the assigned course reading – it read:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne
These words were so profound and powerful as it resonated so much with me, and became words I wanted to live by.
This course, along with others, introduced me to the concept of population health, and to great public health figures like Edward Jenner (pioneer of the smallpox vaccine), Florence Nightingale (a nurse who improved sanitary conditions in hospitals), and in modern day, Paul Farmer. These individuals inspired me with their selfless contributions to the world. The kind of impact they were making on the human population was not at an individual level, but rather, in the thousands. When you want to see change, you want to see it in these large numbers, and that’s what I wanted to do.
As you can imagine, I was enjoying the elective courses more than those I needed for dental school (chemistry, physics, and calculus). I soon realised that pursuing something I was not interested in was not the smartest thing. Towards the end of my second year, I made the switch to a Health Studies program. I began to explore careers in public health and discovered Epidemiology, which led me to apply to a Master’s program in Public Health.
The MPH program at the University of Saskatchewan was especially appealing to me because I didn’t have full-time work experience. I did however have significant volunteer experience at not-for-profit organizations, research labs, and in front-line health care. With this, I was able to prepare a strong application and was accepted to the School of Public Health. I began my MPH in August of 2011.
20 months and 2 lessons
I moved from Toronto to Saskatoon – quite the move, as you can imagine. The 20 months I spent in Saskatoon were some of my best days. In addition to the many learning opportunities the program provided, I saw myself grow as an individual. I not only made lifelong friends, I also met inspiring mentors, learnt the power of seeking your own opportunities, and discovered my love for building things, leading me to entrepreneurship. In the 20 months, I learnt two important lessons.
Seek your own opportunities
With anything you do, you only get what you put into it.
Attending classes, finishing assignments, and writing exams are only part of the MPH program. The other part comes from the opportunities you seek out for yourself. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, who at that time was the Department Head of Community Health and Epidemiology (he also became the Interim Director at the School of Public Health). What began as an informal chat over how he could support my interest in research, turned into two amazing paid research jobs: as a Program Evaluator with the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU); and a Research Assistant with the Metropolis Project, at the Community-University Institute for Social Research (CUISR). These opportunities became the stepping stones of my career in public health and Dr. Nazeem became an inspiring mentor, who I still keep in touch with.
Getting good grades is important, but it’s not everything. With good grades and a degree, you also need good experience. A lot of the opportunities available at the university and at organizations are not always advertised. Network with people and put yourself out there so that you can create your own opportunities!
Go above and beyond
A Master’s program is very different from an undergraduate training. I found that the time I spent in my MPH program gave me the opportunity to apply everything I learned in the classroom to the real world. Each assignment we received had a direct application to the “real world”; they weren’t just case studies. You have to be willing to take what you learned and go beyond the classroom. That’s how you succeed, and that’s how you stand out!
One great example was during my “Program Planning and Evaluation” course. The final project was to work with a community organization to either plan or evaluate a program. My team worked with the Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association. We proposed to assess the needs of the community to gain an understanding of the housing and programming necessities, with the intention of designing a housing project.
My team and I went beyond the classroom. We met and hung out with brain injury survivors at their events. We heard their stories, and we understood their needs. It would have been easy to sit behind the computer and complete a literature review for the proposal. But we were excited about the possibility of bringing this proposal to life. We built strong relationships with the organization that by the end of the project, offered a summer job which included duties of continuing the research we had done. Since most of us were wanting to return to our families in other provinces, one colleague was able to take the offer and went on to work for the organization for a few years following graduation.
I assure you that when you think to go above and beyond the classroom, and you won’t be disappointed!
You will see in part 2 of this blog another example of going above and beyond with the MPH program; I go on to founding a not-for-profit organization based off of a term paper and this platform – PH SPOT!
My advice here is don’t just complete an assignment for the sake of finishing off your degree. Get yourself excited about the impact you could make with it, and go above and beyond, think outside of the box, and if it allows, bring your ideas to life!
Read Part 2 of my story where I tell you about my full-time job with the Public Health Agency of Canada, the not-for-profit organization I created from a term paper (www.tamilhealth.ca), and my most recent venture I launched to tackle career development (phspot.ca).
About the author:
Sujani Sivanantharajah is an Epidemiologist at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in Biology and Health Studies, and then went on to complete a Masters of Public Health (MPH) degree at the University of Saskatchewan. After guiding a number of students and new grads over the past 7 years, Sujani created PH SPOT to reach and inspire a larger number of emerging public health professionals to build their career.