Finding your why, coming back to centre, and living in realism, with Kristi Sprowl

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Kristi Sprowl, the Community Impact Director at the American Heart Association. They talk about finding your niche in public health, building from your experiences, and ways to champion and innovate the profession of public health.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How Kristi found her way into public health through nursing
  • Why Kristi decided to pursue a Doctor in Public Health degree and how a doctorate can offer more flexibility and opportunity
  • Tips on how to find the right career path for you including exploring as much as you can and finding the right mentors and community
  • How knowing your “why” and centering yourself helps you avoid burnout and accomplish your goals
  • Interviewing tips and how to springboard from prior jobs and experiences to a new position
  • The importance of servitude and taking action outside of the workplace
  • How the workplace is changing and where innovation can take place in the public health field

Today’s Guest:

Kristi Sprowl is a Los Angeles native, health enthusiast, and Public Health Practitioner through rigorous academic training. She received her Bachelor of Science degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills in Community Health and her Master in Public Health degree at the University of Arizona where she received numerous awards for her research efforts related to public health issues affecting women. Kristi moved to Atlanta to pursue her public health career on a larger scale and joined Emory University conducting public health clinical research and worked as a Senior Health Educator at the Fulton County Board of Health where she planned and implemented community public health education programs, community outreach campaigns and public awareness initiatives with clinics, schools, and other stakeholders across Georgia’s largest county. Kristi now works as a Community Impact Director at the American Heart Association, leading and directing health initiatives in the Metro Atlanta region to drive local policy change. Kristi was recently accepted into the Doctor of Public Health program at the University of Georgia’s 2021 cohort for working executives. She was awarded as a 2021 Health Equity Fellow at the University of Georgia and now representing as a 2022 Urban Leaders Fellow for Dekalb County in Atlanta’s metro region. Her future goals include teaching at the collegiate level, conducting research around leadership training and assessment for BIPOC professionals, and advancing programmatic efforts around social determinants of health and racial inequities. 

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Kristi 0:00
To do is to serve when you’re doing something, think about how it served not only yourself but other people. Because that’s what public health is all about. We have so many definitions of public health, but the underlining mission of public health is servitude. So as long as we are doing that, in some capacity, in and out of work, will love it forever, we’ll never have to find another field

Sujani 0:25
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Hi, Kristi, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. It’s so wonderful to have you here.

Kristi 0:46
Thank you. Thank you, Sujani. And it’s great to be here. Happy Wednesday morning.

Sujani 0:51
Oh, yeah, Happy Wednesday morning. So Kristi, you know, the first question that I start with my guests is around how they discovered public health. And for a lot of them, it was an accidental discovery. And you know, most of my guests have discovered it, after they kind of started their undergraduate degrees. But what I did realize is kind of what I was reading into your background is that you went into an undergraduate program for Health Sciences in community health. So curious to hear when you discovered that this field of public health existed? And then kind of from there, what was that like decision point to say, I think I’m gonna try exploring a career in that area?

Kristi 1:37
Sure. Well, starting my undergraduate career actually started at Howard University wanting to be a nurse. So I always had the health bug in me. I just didn’t necessarily know what it meant. And I remember in high school, you know, towards senior year talking to my dad about- Dad, I know I like health, but I don’t really know what that means. And you know, he went to law school, so he’s very well versed in just matriculating through college. And he mentioned, well, Nursing is a good field, and you always have a job and you get paid well. So that’s all I knew, is that, Okay, well, that sounds good, stability, good money, you know, as an 18 year old, you know, that’s a highlight. And so going into how are my freshman year taking some of the classes and not doing completely well in nursing courses, and then leaving Howard my freshman year, because of just cost and, and going back to California, where I’m from Los Angeles, to finish up my associate’s degree in behavioral health, I realized that taking the prerequisites for nursing was difficult for me. And I was like, if this is going to be the rest of my college career, I don’t think we’re gonna last too long. And also, I was able to be a patient extender, a patient extension volunteer at UCLA Ronald Reagan center. And I learned from just volunteering there for two years and talking to a lot of the nurses and just being around a lot of the patients that is beautiful as the health care system is in its ability to provide quality care. I just didn’t know if it was a fit for me to have the everyday flow of patient care. And also, knowing how burnt out the nurses were even then, like, of course, pandemic, we’ve heard a lot of stories of nursing burnout, and high turnover. But even then, like I was volunteering there, probably 2013, 2014. So even, you know, almost 10 years ago, this has been a conversation. So after learning more about that, and talking to nurses, I was really lost again, I was like, Darn it, I thought I had a path. And I’m back at square one of like, what do I really want to do, even though I still was passionate about health, and I remember talking to a public health nurse, and I was telling her just about the ideas I had and how I’m still kind of stuck. And, you know, I was like, I’m really good with people. I can speak really well. I can articulate my thoughts really well. I love to educate, you know, I’m just kind of giving my qualities that I liked in a in a career and she was like, huh, that sounds like public health. That sounds like some of the stuff I do. I just do it on the clinical level. And I was like, Oh, really. So that was the starting point of me like digging deep into what public health is and if I would enjoy it and and my job was still going to classes at El Camino College in California to finish up my Associate’s degree. And I was applying for getting my bachelor’s degree at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. I applied to the Health Sciences concentration and community health because of just everything I researched and everything I’ve heard. And so I’m glad had that I had that experience to really volunteer in a hospital and talk to people. And I think that you know, when they say, networking is intimidating, it is. But it’s so helpful because people want to be a resource, believe it or not, they want to talk to you, they want to let you know about their careers because they see if you’re young and hungry, that you can land in a position that will either take you to the next level, or maybe pivot you into another direction. So I just took a quick pivot, and it ended up working really well for me, I was able to really thrive in Dominguez in the Community Health Division. So yeah, a lot of trial and error, but I ended up being in public health, just because I learned that something else wasn’t really a good fit.

Sujani 5:44
Yeah, it’s great that you were able to go and kind of see what it meant to be a nurse, you know, not not just reading up on what that profession entail, but actually seeing the work in real life, right. That’s what I think is very important that at a young age for folks to get that sort of experience, whether that’s through volunteering, or job shadowing, whatever it could be. So when you were back at your computer, researching about this, like newfound area of work that you could explore in public health, what were some ideal jobs that you had in mind, even before you started your bachelor’s?

Kristi 6:25
Wow, well, I knew I loved education. So I remember researching and seeing that there was a lot of health educator jobs. So I was like, Oh, this the best of both worlds I get to teach, but I get to really explore health. I also was interested in some areas of communication, I didn’t really know what that was at the time, right? We have this whole area in public health, health communication, but at the time, I was like, is that like a health journalist, am I going to blog like I didn’t understand what it meant at the time. But I knew I wanted to do something to disseminate positive health messaging, I knew that that was a purpose for me. And that also tied into health education, because we’re delivering health messaging. So I knew that my voice also was a huge benefit to the people that I served, I think the way that I’m able to articulate myself and also draw people in, I think, naturally, me being charismatic, just, you know, outside of public health, just you know, with my friends and family, I knew that that would be an essential tool in public health, because of the way that I was able to connect with people because of the way I was able to help people understand certain things. So definitely education and communication was something that I knew that I wanted to get into, and kind of see me matriculate throughout my profession and education. It’s interesting how I landed in those areas pretty frequent in my career.

Sujani 7:58
Yeah, it’s amazing, the amount of clarity it seems that you had back like eight years ago, when you were figuring out what it is that you wanted to do. Can you remember kind of like any other resources, people, just like things that help you gain that clarity, because for any of our listeners, who may be at the beginning of their education kind of journey, or maybe even pursuing a master’s degree and still looking for that clarity, I’m wondering if you could offer some sort of advice in that area?

Kristi 8:30
Sure. Well, the first thing I would say is, try everything. And that might sound so ambiguous, I get it. But that’s really the only way that I knew what I wanted to do. And if I try everything in a certain scope, right, if you first dig into what you’re good at doing, I think that’s the primary step. What do I like to do? What am I naturally good at doing without anybody having to pay me, tell me, show me what can I just do, naturally? I knew I had the gift of gab, I knew I had the gift of speech. I knew I had the gift of connection. And that’s something I can do with my eyes closed. Right? So I was able to first, identify my strengths, because that’s critical. You know, my strength is not biostatistics. It would be unfortunate for me to spend all my time and energy in biostatistics and epidemiology when I knew that that really wasn’t my career fit, right? So I had to identify exactly what I’m good at naturally without anyone telling me, showing me, paying me. Then from there, I had to identify, well, how can I find opportunities to really showcase those skills? And that’s what I go to the notion of trying everything. I tried everything within that area of my strengths to play with and use my skills was my playground, really. Because I know sometimes people take it so seriously, like, oh, I have to really have this list of, you know, job prespections. And I have to have this list of mentors. And you know, I mean, yes, have your Excel sheet. I’m not saying that being organized is wrong. I’m just saying that there’s also a playfulness to the process that you can enjoy what you’re doing, and not necessarily have this pin and pad out every time you are integrating into a new space, because a lot of the times that I ended up being in different public health opportunities, it was because I was playing, I was just figuring it out, having a good time while doing it. And what I mean by playing is, like my first internship, I was able to, like I say, land a spot at Ronald Reagan at UCLA. But I was rotating in different departments. I was playing around with what I could like, I was in labor delivery for three months, I rotated in cardiology, then I moved into head and neck cancers. And I moved this I mean, I was playing around with what areas in nursing at the time where I was I interested in, when I actually started to integrate into public health. I was still playing around with certain ideas in public health I liked, do I like health communication? Am I more of a grassroots advocacy person? Am I more of a health educator? Can I do more of maybe writing and the critical components of research, so I still was playing? Yes, everything I was doing was, I would say pretty strategic. But it was still fun. I wasn’t necessarily, you know, dragging through the process. And also, I would say, another key was I identified mentors that I knew would also like me, they were fun. They wanted to explore public health in a very unique way. They were always challenging their profession, I saw qualities and my mentors that they pushed the envelope, they had a resume that was colorful. So in my mentors, it wasn’t just about oh, they work at the CDC, let me call them, it was about, huh, I see that they have specific qualities that I want to see in my career, they had a colorful resume, they, like I said, they were fun. They were in, they enjoyed their careers. And so I sought out those mentors that aligned with who I wanted to be in public health. And so I think those are three critical components, strengths, finding, moving around in your career in a strategic yet fun way, and finding mentors that aligned with who you want to be. I think with those three, I was able to really do some powerful work and connect with people who are like minded and want to do the same.

Sujani 12:56
Did you find that, you know, this idea of playing around and discovering yourself, in a way became more difficult as you were establishing your career, I’m thinking back and they- I’m thinking, you know, when you’re volunteering, or you’re interning, or you know, you’re very early on in your career might be a little bit easier to test out different areas of work within the organization you’re at. Curious to hear, based on your experience, if that idea of playing around has become even, like, you know, relatively a bit more difficult as you established your career or you found like no problem at all.

Kristi 13:37
I’ll say it’s 50-50. So, if you were to look at my resume right now, and I’m gonna be honest, because I think that, you know, a lot of public health professionals make it sound like, you know, they always had a plan. And you know, it’s always so documented and manifested from beginning. A lot of my jobs on my resume were between eight months to a year and a half. Right? So I had to do a lot of searching, I think, and not necessarily because I didn’t like the job, not necessarily because it didn’t grow me. I just know that I had a public health idea in mind of how I wanted to utilize my career. And so the jobs that I’ve had, I knew that as valuable as they were, I couldn’t stay for long. And for some people that shamed upon right people say, you know, we don’t like to see the flightiness of a public health professional or any professional that’s just jumping around. I’ve been able to navigate that space fairly well. I think the goal that I’ve had is if I am applied for a new job, I am very clear about how that job would springboard, right? Because I think that people say that oh, if I’m not there for two years, I’m shamed on. But I really use as a springboard, something I said in my previous interview, because now currently I work as a community impact director of the American Heart Association in Metro Atlanta. And honestly, that was a question like, Oh, I see it, you work at this previous job, what makes you want to be a good fit for this position. And I told her, I said, the job I had prior was excellent at building the skills that I have to prepare for the position I’m applying for now. I use that job as a springboard to really understand what skill sets are necessary to put me in a leadership position as when I’m applying for AHA, it’s all about how you use the previous job. It’s not necessarily about oh, because I was there for a fairly short time, now I can’t move forward, you absolutely can. But you have to articulate well, why you need to move forward. And how this job that you’re in now is really going to cultivate the skills that you’ve gained in previous jobs and internships. So when I mentor early professionals, and really talk to them about what they need, I really emphasize that it’s really about how you articulate what you’ve done. Because in interview, there- they see the resume, they see what you’ve done. So you’re in the door, because they believe in you.

Sujani 16:26

Kristi 16:26
But how are you going to kick the door down with articulating how you’ve used those skills, it’s not enough these days to just be at a great job as a health educator, or program coordinator. And not to say those jobs aren’t important because everybody has to gain skills at whatever level in public health. But if you really want to get to a position to kick the door down, you have to talk about as a coordinator, I was able to really organize the organizational need to you know, I mean, you have to talk about it in a way where you were an extreme asset to the team. And I think that that’s sometimes where people get missed in the opportunities, because new companies want to know, how are you going to be an asset, right? And I’m so boxing a little bit, but I think I say 50-50 in the beginning, because I don’t think it was necessarily difficult for me, I think, because I already had a plan on how I was going to use my skills. I think there were times that it was difficult, because I was kind of jumping around a little bit, I had to prove myself a bit more, right, I had to solidify my position as an asset to the new company that I was in. But once that was established, it was smooth sailing from there, I was really able to showcase my abilities. And I think that once that happened, trust is built, and people depend on you and know that you can perform. So I think it’s just if you are in a position of playing and jumping, be strategic, and be able to articulate why that was a springboard into your new leadership role.

Sujani 18:03
Yeah, it’s almost like if you can showcase and build that trust and show them that even if I’m only there for nine months, or 11 months, or a year and a half, the value you’re going to get from me coming into this role is going to be so much more than having somebody around for five years, that’s not going to bring the same amount of value that I’m going to bring. Right? It’s about like, I guess communicating that to the employer.

Kristi 18:29
Absolutely, absolutely. That’s really good. Actually, that was well articulated to me, I love that because it’s true. I mean, we even look at internships, right? I just completed a fellowship, that was seven weeks. But it was extremely impactful for the council members that I worked with for the policy fellowship that I was in. So I don’t think it’s always about quantity of time, right? Because I think that you know, millennials, we are showing that we don’t have to stay in a position for 20 years like our parents did, we can really be able to move around according to our need and the skill set we’re building. And from there, allow companies to mold us into leaders as well as us molding companies into better organizations to fulfill public health outcomes in need. So it’s a cyclical thing. You know, people sometimes think of it is us using them and then using us I think about it as servitude. If I’m serving a company, not necessarily a company, but a company’s mission, right, because I’m not serving AHA. I’m serving AHA’s mission to be relentless force to save lives through our heart health resources and education and science. So I’m serving the mission. And so I think as early professionals and as we’re growing into mid and senior professionals, we have to think about what’s the mission we’re driving, right, because we can’t just carelessly keep having jobs and and that won’t necessarily fulfill us, we’ll still come home every day thinking that, Oh, man, I need something else, I need something else. Something’s not, something’s missing, there’s a hole. And I’m speaking from my own truth, because I felt like that. There’s some times when I still feel like, even when I’m going in the world, because I’m not only a director full time, but I am a doctorate student at the University of Georgia in their health policy management department. And so as much as I’m doing on a daily basis, there will be times where I sit myself and say, Is this all perfect, girl, like, does this all make sense to you, you know, I’ll have those moments of impostor syndrome. And I was actually telling my partner the other day, because he’s very good at life coaching and business coaching. And, you know, he said, to remember your why is so critical to the work, right? Because you can get lost in just doing things for the sake of doing them. And so remembering your why centers you back to what your personal mission is. And then if you’re working for an organization, what the organizational mission is, and how you can continuously be of service in and out of your career and profession.

Sujani 21:09
So based on what you’ve gathered from your partner, in your own experience, how does one find their why and align their career and work towards that?

Kristi 21:19
That’s good. The first step is coming to center. When we start in public health, we’re excited, we have a fire, you know, usually our first public health class, I just remember my first public health class, I was on fire. I was like, Oh, yes, community, education, research. Oh, you know, I was I was swimming in it, I was so engrossed in it. I was a scholar during my undergrad. And so I was even more in tuned with community need and how to partner people to really facilitate, you know, the kind of positive outcomes you want to see. And using research as a- as a driver. I mean, I was all in it. But then I was in my master’s degree, and the fire started to just level out, you know, it was kind of like, it wasn’t blazing, but it was still there. But I noticed that I was kind of doing things for the sake of saying I’m doing them, right? I was, I was working a lot jobs, I was in classes, I was doing with all the things. But I was not driven by something. I was just doing it because that’s what you do. When you’re in public health, you just take the classes, you do the jobs, you do the things. So I had to come back to center and center for me was conferences, opportunities to have like think tanks with other public health professionals. Center for me was sometimes even writing about what do I love in public health. So everybody has their own personal center. But I think my center was just finding like minded people to really talk about public health in a candid way to really get the fire continuously burning for me, from there coming back to center also made me realize that I can’t live on a high in public health, right? Like, there’s some people who expect public health to be extremely exciting all the time. And that’s just not realistic. So I also, in coming to my center, had to live in realism, and say that there’s going to be a lot of days where public health is exciting and engaging. But there probably be some days where I’m checking emails, and making sure that, you know, all the stars align, and maybe there’s a report I have to finish and, and those parts aren’t necessarily that exciting. But I can’t use those parts and say, Oh, public health is so drivy, like, no, there’s elements of it, that’s going to feel mundane, but there’s a lot of elements of it that’s going to feel nurturing and fulfilling and exciting. So I think coming to center and being realistic about the process, and also doing the things that don’t create burnout creates that why, right, because for me, I told my colleagues, I was like, I have five things that I put on my list every day that I want to do. And that’s that’s not a long list. But it’s a list that’s comfortable enough that says, Okay, I know I can accomplish those five, so I’m guaranteed to accomplish my tasks. And if there’s room for me to do other things, which there’s always room, I can do them freely, and not in the confinement of oh my god, I didn’t finish the 10 things on my list, right? And for the listeners, I’m type B. So I know for all the type As are like, Oh my God, that would never work, right?

Sujani 24:41

Kristi 24:42
So so I get that I get that. But because I have a very free spirited personality. It’s helped me in not getting so burnt out on the process. Because knowing your whys, is also knowing the process of what you’re doing and why it makes sense. And what’s it gonna mean in the long term. And it’s about just digging into how your spirit and soul feels when you do something, right, that- that makes me really dedicated to my why is when I’m in front of people. And when I’m talking about public health and, and when I’m doing a podcast, I’m able to really articulate my personal process, those things light me up, like, I’m not gonna lie, Sujani, I’m on fire today, I might do, I hit it today. I might do 10 things on my list today, because I’m just that inspired. And I leave room for those moments because they will happen. And the days where I’m back at five on my list, those things will happen too. But as long as I’m continuously building the momentum, to really navigate my career to healthy space, I think that makes the why that much more powerful for me.

Sujani 25:51
I’ll have to admit that that was a selfish question I asked for myself, because I was literally up last night Googling, finding your passion and purpose and watching YouTube videos on that. I was feeling-

Yeah, there’s tons of stuff. And like you said, you know, you’re sometimes sitting back and thinking like, what am I doing all of this for? And so yeah, I had a moment like that yesterday. And so I thought you were the perfect person to ask that question to get me fired up again.

Kristi 26:21
Totally, totally. Yes. And that’s what I said, find your why is sometimes calling up Sujani on a Friday night, like, Girl, before we go out to drinks, can we unpack this? Or maybe we can unpack this over drinks?

Sujani 26:35

Kristi 26:36
But I think- but I think either way, you have to have a village of public health professionals that aren’t so granular. You know, I mean, and that’s healthy. I think sometimes, you know, our colleagues and our circle of public health professionals that are very, I guess you could say professional, you know, they’re very on top of it. And that’s beautiful, right? I have a community of colleagues that I depend on when it comes to really tapping into my type A, getting things done, making the dream work, but then also have my public health professionals that are friends that I’m just like, girl, do you see this on TV? Monkeypox? Can you believe, you know, just- just talking candidly about this stuff and not feeling so pressure to save the world all the time, because something I’m interested in just in my public health work down the line is how to nurture the public health workforce. Right? If we look at research from the Beaumont Foundation, in their PH winds data, we have a huge need in public health. But our workforce is tired, underserved, underpaid, drained, leaving professions to go to tech go to other- other areas of more lucrative income and more possibilities and opportunities and leadership. And the public health workforce essentially cannot serve the demand and need of what we are experiencing on a day to day basis. So how do we continue the fire? How do we remind people of their why? How do we create a space in public health? That isn’t always numbers and data? And it’s about the stories and the people and the- and the need and the- and the cultivation of new ideas, right? I always say of public health, there is nothing new under the sun, absolutely nothing. If you have an idea of public health. If you Google it, there’s probably somebody who thought about it, and has done it in a certain way. But the key to innovation is how do I do the same thing they did and use it in a different direction, right? People have done evaluation, people have done community outreach, people have done media messaging, social media messaging, there’s so many different areas in public health that we have done well, but there’s also so many areas in public health that we can do better. And that’s where the innovation comes in. That’s where the spark is driven. And so I think that’s why it’s so cool for me to be in my doctoral program right now. Because as much as there’s times where I’m like, Oh, why is this matter? You know, there’s even more times where I’m like, you know, what, I am the spark. I’m the innovator. I’m the one that’s driving something new in public health that maybe has been done, but maybe hasn’t been thought about in that particular way. Right? So in public health, also, I have little tidbits and phrases, so feel free to steal them, folks, if you want. Just credit me, credit me. Another thing I like to say is, do we want to work at public health agencies? Or do we want to be agents in public health? Right? Because, that’s a huge difference. You could sit at a public health agency and work for the CDC for 5-10 years, and really just follow the leader, right? But if you also work at an agency and say, You know what, there’s an area I can actually contribute to. I’ve seen this work so many times and you know what, there’s some there’s an area here where I think I can do a little differently. That’s where the spark comes. That’s where the innovator in you is beginning to arise. And that’s when your why is constantly fed. So I think we need to always think of sparks in our career, because there’s areas everywhere in public health that needs improvement.

Sujani 30:17
No, absolutely. And then going back to, you know, your comment on finding your strengths and working in those strengths. I think, like you said, people have done evaluations, people have done social media campaigns or health education campaigns, but bringing your unique strengths into it and your unique ideas. I think that’s where innovation comes in. I want to ask you a few questions. And I wonder if they’re all going to just merge into one answer. But you talked a little bit about going to do your master’s degree. And then you know, a few years later, you decided to go and do your doctorate degree. I’m curious about like that decision to pursue education, I guess, after having graduated from your masters 2018, three years break, and then you went back to school.

Kristi 31:04

Sujani 31:04
And then I also heard you talk a little bit about innovation. And then I also noticed on your LinkedIn, that you also identified yourself as a social entrepreneur. And that’s like, one of my favorite topics when I see social entrepreneurship, especially amongst public health professionals. So I want to hear what you’re up to.

Kristi 31:24
Sure. Yeah, of course. 2018, yes, graduated my master’s degree at the University of Arizona, I worked for two years full time, well I consistently worked full time since 2018, I should say, but I use those two years to really pause, like, I matriculate through school literally all my life, there was not a day, since five years old, that I was not in school, right? So I really wanted to pause because I didn’t want to keep going without a direction. You know, even though they say life is a journey, yes. But even on that journey, you got to have a compass, you got to have a direction, you can’t just keep floating through. So as I was working, I noticed different areas in my career that could use a spark, an innovation, right? And I noticed that you know, what, who’s gonna be the driver of this, like, if I’m seeing these things, who’s gonna be the one to actually do something about it? And mind you, I could have done something about it with a master’s degree, there’s plenty of people who are innovators and, and doing all the work with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, sometimes they don’t even have a degree, they’re just in the work, and they do the work and they perform really well. But I knew for me, there’s a specific door that you get into with a doctorate degree. There’s a specific microphone that you’ve received with a doctorate degree, there’s a specific platform that you’re on with a doctorate degree. And I knew that with my innovation, and with the ideas that I had, and with the work I wanted to do, there’s just a certain way I wanted to go about doing that. And that’s with the stamp of approval, from education, from academia, from society, from being a mentor, from going back to Inglewood, California, and showing other people that you can be a doctor, you could do it, there was so many driving factors that led me to wanting to apply, and I’m not gonna lie, I was, I was doubting myself most of the time, I remember having my personal statement and my transcripts and just putting all that in. And I’m literally on the phone with my parents about to press in like, Y’all should I do this for real?

Like I did- I got up to this point of having everything in, right, and just having everything ready to go and still feeling like, Girl, like, are you just doing this for everyone else? You know, like, are you just doing this because of the title and not the meaning, like I had to really dig into myself even before I press send. And my parents said, Kristi, you were- you wanted this since you were a kid, you didn’t even realize it. But you’ve always talked about being a leader, you’ve always talked about wanting to I mean, my mom didn’t say this, but she said this in a, I guess you could say the 2022 type way. She said, you always want to shake tables, you know, and be the one to use your voice, your talents, your abilities to really allow people to thrive in the world. You’ve always been that kind of person, you know, and then she went into this whole spiel about as a baby, you even had people, you know, wallowing over you, you know, just, you know, just affirming me and all the ways and my dad said, you know, and he’s very analytical, you know, he’s like, what else are you going to do with the next 4 years? Right? Like what like, you could just work you could-

Sujani 34:58

Kristi 34:58
But you- but you know what you’re called for. So why not use those four years to grow closer to your calling, instead of just facilitating a mission that you’re serving with other companies, organizations, but what about your personal mission? Your personal mission was always to do this kind of work. And I’m like, dang, dang, you’re right, right. So I’ve literally pressing send while they’re affirming me. And it was just a beautiful moment of knowing that the village is critical to your success. Oh, my goodness, you cannot do it alone, you really can’t, because you will take- you will talk yourself out of it. And I’ve done it, I’m still doing it. I’ve- I’ve had to call my village multiple times to really get me back on track. But I think the moment I knew was, really, when I saw while working that I needed to do more, I couldn’t just work, I needed to actually change and shift and craft new ideas in public health. And in order to be a shapeshifter, I wanted to use the doctor degree as a way to show that you know what, I have a specific niche in this field, right? Because people say, Oh, once you’re a doctor, you have- you’re an expert in the field. I’m not a big fan of that, you’re never an expert at anything in my personal opinion. Now you have a specific calling, and niche and drive in the work. But we’re always learning about new ideas. That’s why people get stuck is because they believe they reached a level of expertise in something without really allowing themselves to grow in the process. So I don’t want to be an expert in public health, I want to be a grower and a shaper and an innovator in public health. And I want to be able to really understand the community need so well, to where I can really use my degree and experience and charisma and all the- all the things I bring to really drive change. And that’s in the smallest of ways and in the biggest of ways, but I just want to allow myself the room to do that. So the doctor degree is not something that everyone wakes up wanting to do. Let me just say, but I want to say too that, being a McNair Scholar, me having this dream from a long time. Me psyching myself out to me finally getting back on track. I just knew that it was the right time to do it. And I want to mention too, there was a moment in my career as I was working. And, you know, thinking about the doctorate degree, this is what really sparked it. I noticed that there’s public health managers, there’s public health analysts, there’s a lot of leader positions in public health. There’s leader positions in public health, but are the people sitting in those positions really leaderful? Like, are they really leaders in their field, it’s not enough to be a manager sometimes, it’s not enough to just manage a project or a grant. Sometimes you have to lead a team and entire organization to believe in the vision. Because if people are just working to fulfill the deliverables, or to check off the boxes, that’s not driving them. That’s how we have to burn out. That’s how we have people in our workforce turning into tech in other directions to fulfill themselves. We need more public health leaders, we need shapeshifters, we need social entrepreneurs. I want to clarify what that means. Because some people might not understand social entrepreneurship. For me, social entrepreneurship is empowering the people that you serve, to do it for themselves. Right? We think about an entrepreneur, they’re self sufficient. They make their own money on their own time, and don’t need to necessarily answer to anyone outside of others, on how they want to perform in their work. Social entrepreneurship is very similar. I don’t want to have to be the one to always handhold our community to do the work. Our community is extremely capable to do the work. We have the innovation, we have the minds, we have the creativity, we know the data, we know the problems, but how do we empower our community to say, You know what, I want to be healthy for me. I want to help a community move forward. Because I know it’s right. I know it’s the right thing to do not because of public health professional slandered down my throat when data and you know, and all the things but because I really believe that I can do it for me, that to me is so powerful. And when we talk about autonomy, and we talk about empowerment, that’s the real tools to really help people see that you know what, I can do this for me and so that’s why I believe so strongly and being a social entrepreneur, because the same tools that I was able to develop, I want to help others develop the same tools, whether that’s a public health professional, I helped develop those tools for them, or whether it’s a community member that is diabetic and really wants to not have to take, you know, insulin every day for the rest of their lives, whatever that means, I want to be the catalyst for that. And another tip that I want to share too, is really sit in your strengths and not harp on the weaknesses. Some people say, what are your weaknesses? And what do you want to do to improve those? Don’t focus on the weaknesses, they’re weaknesses for a reason. If you’re not good at something, that’s okay. You know, in public health, we want to always be a jack of all trades, and we should be able to do all the things epidemia we should be epidemiologists and biostatisticians. And, and evaluators and, and, and it’s like, if I’m a public health professional, that’s good at community, I’m gonna rock in the community, I’m not necessarily going to find new ways to try to think about public health in a way where I’m not utilizing my strengths. Now, mind you, areas of improvement, sure, if you have a weakness, and you’re like, No, but I really do want to work on this. Absolutely. But I think that that’s such a crippling question, to say that your weaknesses should always be focused on to improve and get better when really, you’re not optimizing your strengths. So I think for people who are just discovering what their Why is and what the mission is for their selves, it’s really about knowing that the weaknesses are going to be there, because they’re supposed to be there. We’re not supposed to be good at everything. That’s an incredible person, you know, I mean, and that’s probably a person that will eventually fizzle out because they’re trying to be everything all the time. The niche is very critical to success. I think in being a doctor student and getting to the point of finding my why each and every day and going through classes and eventually going to be taking cops soon. Just thinking about where in public health can I consistently be a shapeshifter? Where can I be an agent and not just work at an agency?

Sujani 41:59
I love it. I love it. Are you sure you don’t want your own podcas, Kristi?

Kristi 42:04
I’ve heard about it. I definitely should. I’m definitely thinking about it. I feel like you know, when you have so much going on.

Sujani 42:12

Kristi 42:12
And you also want to do so much too. You have to compartmentalize like, I’ve learned that in my successes. There’s no way that I can just want everything at once. I’m gonna go crazy.

Sujani 42:23

Kristi 42:24
So I’ve said Kristi, you have a task, doctorate degree focus, laser in.

Sujani 42:29

Kristi 42:30
But no, after the degree literally May 2025 oh, it’s- it’s a wrap, Sujani, you’re gonna see me everywhere, anywhere, all the things, I have a mission, I have to complete it. But- But even then I feel like another thing about public health I want to emphasize is that it doesn’t have to look one way, right? People think, oh, I want to get a good job. And everybody’s dream job is the CDC. And I’m not trying to downplay the CDC, I love the CDC, we partner with the CDC often in research, but I do want to emphasize that there are so many things you can do in public health. A lot of my mentors are public health entrepreneurs, they have their own businesses, they’re speaking around the country, they have podcasts, they’re doing all the cool things, and it doesn’t look a certain way. And that’s the kind of life I want in public health. I also knew that a doctor degree would allow me a bit of freedom in that way. Because once I’m Doctor, you know, and this is a society thing, once your doctor from a societal perspective, there’s not much you can say, you’ve done it, you’ve- you, you’ve reached a pivotal point of academia to where you can now move in a way that gives you, you know, a little more water, a little more fluidity. And so, for me, I wanted to always be a public health entrepreneur, I wanted to teach, but I wanted to also have the podcasts, be the speaker, travel across the country, you know, be the one that is inspiring people to find their fire in public health. And so yeah, podcasts, all the things, it’s a possibility. And that’s what’s so fun about public health is that there are a lot of possibilities. It’s just networking with the people who have done it and doing the similar. Doesn’t mean there won’t be a copycat.

Sujani 44:14
Yeah, I love that you said like, you know, everyone aims for that dream job. But there’s so much more that you could do around your career. And that’s, that’s exactly, you know, we ran a couple of career programs, and we’re changing out the model of it going forward. But what we were encouraging people to do is like, think about this concept of a dream career rather than a dream job and think about all the things that you want, making up that career for you. And it was amazing to see that like the participants wrote down things like wanting to write a book wanting to you know, build different companies or initiatives.

Kristi 44:52

Sujani 44:53
Going back to school, having that like nine to five job, but there was so much more that entailed like that dream career, and, and it was just exciting for me to personally see that, you know, we could encourage other public health professionals to think beyond that one job that they needed to have, you know, in public health.

Kristi 45:12
Totally. Absolutely, yeah. And also just, you know, remembering that you don’t have to feel alone in the process, I emphasize that so much about the village. Because there are people out here that are doing that, doing all the cool things. So I think talking to them, and I’m available, by the way, I can be a new member of your village, I’m just putting it out there. Because, you know, it’s important to not only just work in the field, but like I said, be of service to the field, I love working with entry level professionals, because they’re, they’re at a really good space where you can really help them see other places in public health. It’s like, literally laying out a public health map. And you know, we’re putting x where it marks the spot, and we’re finding the ways to get there. And that process to me is just so much fun, just to help people explore not only just their careers, but themselves. So that’s really what you’re doing. It’s a personal exploration. So absolutely.

Sujani 46:15
And the energy and the excitement that they bring, it’s, so you can kind of like, thrive off of that as well.

Kristi 46:21
Yes, it gives you the fire. This is why I’m doing this, because of people like you who are so inspired. So yeah, the work is- the work is so important. And I will say everyone, challenge yourselves to really get out there to conferences, research institutes, workshops, I mean, you know, I know that sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone, it’s itchy, it’s not the most comfortable. But it’s so cool. Sometimes you might not even talk to anybody that day. But I always say that I keep at least three business cards in my purse wherever I go. Because if I could talk to at least three people a day, and I don’t always get to, but if I can at least make an incentive to talk to three people a day, and hand out three of my business cards, I’m winning, I’m doing the work that I’m supposed to do in allowing my name to continuously rollout and allowing the work I do to continuously be shined upon. And also just allow people to know that there’s another public health professional, that is cool, fresh, funky, and just ready to do the work and ready to bring minds together to get the job done. And also too, I think, in public health, it’s not always doing something that’s backed by an organization. Sometimes if you get a group of people together, like I remember two of my friends in the U of A program, I had shout out to Nick and Katie, they’re of their awesome, we always talk about what can we do with public health that’s just outside of work, you know, like, like, because we have the skills. I mean, they give us the skills to not only pay the bills, but to really serve people. And so what can we really do to shape shift on our own maybe as a collective. So I think there’s things you can do even outside of work that really helps people feel connected, like, you know, gathering your friends and feeding the homeless or gathering your friends and volunteering at a health fair and talking about protective factors to really help public health drive forward. Or, you know, I mean, there’s so many areas, I think that we can serve that go untapped, because we just think that it limits itself to work. But I challenge everyone to really practice servitude in your field, outside of work, whatever that looks like. Because it’s meaningful. That’s what prevents the burnout. That’s what refuels your why.

Sujani 48:43
Yeah. And it’s so impactful. I mean, we saw that during the pandemic, all of the the social media accounts that were started by, like amazing public health professionals just trying to communicate what was happening out there.

Kristi 48:56
Totally. And we need to lean on them. I think when we think about stakeholders, right, when we’re in, we’re in those rooms where we’re doing our strategic plans, and we’re thinking about the SWOT analysis, you know, y’all know, you know, look at those strengths, those weaknesses, opportunities and threats and, and who can be the people that we depend on. We need to start looking at our neighbors, not just organizations, but like, maybe that one person on Tik Tok that has over a million followers that is talking really good public health stuff. We need to utilize the people who are really visibly doing the work and being able to pull them in and maybe they don’t have a million followers. I’m being you know, being overzealous, but I think overall, there are people like myself who are doing the work and would love to have the platform to showcase that. And we’d love to partner with other people in organizations to really move that mission forward. I think it’s important to put ourselves out there and create visibility, because if you know, luckily for this podcast and other things I’ve done, I’ve been able to have a little bit of, you know, a little bit of visibility. But I think overall, it’s really about the work that’s visible, that I like to really highlight. It’s about what I do, outside of the work that I want people to be able to tap into, and to be a part of, when we think of grassroots, I mean, it’s really working from the ground up, I think that’s why that work is so critical to what we do in advocacy and community engagement. Because when we start to tap into our skill sets, we begin to realize that this isn’t just for myself, these skills could be useful for other people. And then you begin to start to cultivate skills and other people, right? That’s why I went back to that social entrepreneurship. All in all, the work is so important, you guys, I mean, I think I don’t ever want us to put all of our work into public health, just to move into another career. I mean, it happens. And that’s fine, if it’s really calling you to be somewhere else. But if you start it in this field, and are in love with this field, and need fuel and fire to retain this field, I think it’s little things that we can all do to really make sure that that happens. And podcasts like these are one of the pieces that we can use for the fire. So I really do appreciate this platform, Sujani, I think it’s important that, you know, people like myself and other people that are just wanting to know more about public health, in a real way are able to listen in. So that’s, that’s really awesome.

Sujani 51:34
That’s amazing, Kristi, I’m looking over at the clock and want to keep you on for much longer. But, also want to respect you and know that it’s still a weekday, and you probably have things to do. So just again, thank you so much for joining us sharing all of that great advice. And just, you know, I think on a personal level for me lighting that fire up again, we’re recording this in September. So I’m excited to see you know, where things will be at with your career and with everything that you’re doing when this goes live in February. So again, thank you and any kind of parting words of wisdom that you want to share with our community?

Kristi 52:14
Sure, I think to do is to serve, I think that’s the biggest one. To do is to serve, when you’re doing something, think about how it served not only yourself, but other people. Because that’s what public health is all about. We have so many definitions of public health, but the underlining mission of public health is servitude. So as long as we are doing that, in some capacity, in and out of work, we’ll love it forever, we’ll never have to find another field.

Sujani 52:44
Hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, and career growth strategy sessions in the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more, or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career Club.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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