Getting out of your comfort zone: teacher to public health researcher, with Stephanie L. Verna

hosted by:

In this episode, Sujani sits down with Stephanie Verna, a former physical education and health teacher and current public health professional. They discuss Stephanie’s career journey, how she took the leap of pursuing public health and the importance of living without regret.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Stephanie’s experience as a teacher and a coach and her passion for education
  • What motivated Stephanie to change career paths and pursue public health
  • Stephanie’s interest in sports health and preventing injury
  • How the pandemic impacted Stephanie’s education and career
  • Stephanie’s experience going back to school, the biggest challenges that she faced, and how she managed them
  • The importance of fully utilizing resources available to you in educational institutes, such as career centers
  • How networking can open doors for you to get to your dream career
  • Advice for others who are thinking about taking the next step in their career path

Today’s Guest:

Stephanie Verna is a Program and Research Manager at one of the CDC’s currently funded injury control research centers – Injury Prevention Research Center at Emory University located in Atlanta, Georgia. Stephanie’s research interests include a multitude of injury topics such as traumatic brain injuries, concussions, and transportation safety. In addition, she is working on a phase 3 national exercise clinical trial, SPARX3 that investigates the effects of moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercise on disease progression in untreated patients with Parkinson’s.

Previously, Stephanie was a middle school Physical Education and Health teacher for over a decade and a women’s lacrosse coach at the middle/high school levels for 18 years. She left her wonderful education and coaching position at a middle school to attend graduate school at Emory University during the pandemic in the fall of 2020. She graduated in May 2022 with a master’s in public health from the behavioral, social, and health education sciences department with an injury prevention certificate. Additionally, she acquired her certified health educational specialist (CHES) certification. 

Stephanie’s passions include educating, mentoring, and coaching other graduate and undergraduate students. She hopes to continue working within the space of injury and violence prevention but hopes to reach her goal of participating in sports related TBI/concussion research in the future. 

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Stephanie 0:00
If there’s something that you’re thinking about, and there’s like a dream that you have, and no matter how unattainable you think it is, I’m gonna sound super cliche, write down the steps that you think you can take to get there. Whether it’s four steps, five steps, 10 steps, break them down to make them a little more manageable, so you don’t think it’s unattainable.

Sujani 0:28
Hey, there, this is Sujani. And I know you can’t wait to get into today’s episode. So I will make this very quick right now and tell you more about it at the end. Up until now, you’ve been hearing about our career program at the end of our episodes. While those career programs were super successful, our community members found a ton of value through them, we decided to put a stop on it. Because after running a few of those pilot cohorts, and having a lot of discussions with our peers in public health, the participants of the program, schools of public health as well as other changemakers in the field, we are excited to let you know that we’ve taken the career program and have expanded it into a much more exciting offer. That doesn’t just last a few weeks. So if you’re listening to this episode, when it’s going live, I’m super excited to let you know that next month in October of 2022, we’ll be opening up the doors to one of our most exciting offerings called the Public Health career club. And you can find out about it at pHspot.org/club. And if you stick around till the end of this episode, I’ll be telling you a bit more about it. But for now, here’s today’s episode.

Hi, Stephanie, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Stephanie 1:57
Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate being here today.

Sujani 2:01
Yeah, I am super pumped to get into your journey, especially because you have done somewhat of a career transition, which I am hearing more and more people thinking about these days, I think I had come across an engineer earlier this year who was thinking about pivoting into the field of public health. And similarly, you were a former physical education and health teacher. I mean, there’s a element of health there, and then you kind of moved into public health or, you know, you can maybe tell us a bit about how you first started your career into teaching. And then what that turning point was for you to perhaps explore the field of public health.

Stephanie 2:46
I’m gonna start at the very, very beginning. And so when I went to undergraduate school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I took a bunch of exercise science classes, anatomy classes, how classes really grabbed my attention, and I was really good anatomy and physiology. And so I kind of stuck with it. So I was an exercise science major. But unfortunately, there wasn’t a teaching portion with it. And I was really, I really like finding out like the most interesting thing, and then finding out the most information about it. And then like educating somebody about it. I love telling people about things that I’m passionate about. So I decided to transfer it from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, where it was super cold to the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and CW and they had a community health education program. And I’m like, this is perfect. So I went ahead and got my degree, I just had two years there. And what I noticed after I graduated, I didn’t have that teaching portion that I wanted to, I could have worked for the health department, but I ended up getting more into the gym. So I became a personal trainer. So I was a personal trainer for about two and a half years. And I really enjoyed it. It was something that I really, really liked. So while I’m teaching people about the gym and how to move and use the equipment properly, there was just something I really enjoyed, you know, just working with children. And so I’ve also been a coach, a girls lacrosse coach for 18 years. And so that kind of I wanted to bring all that together. So I went back to school to get my teacher’s certificate. So added that we’re just kind of collecting all of the all of the pieces of paper, all of it. Once I had that personal training background, I actually was able to get my certification faster because I was a personal trainer. So that was actually really helpful to me because I was able to get that faster. So I got that right when everything crashed in 2008 and I could not find a teaching job. I don’t know if you know PE teachers they stay, they stay really long time.

Sujani 5:01
Yeah.

Stephanie 5:02
And they hang out. And that’s I mean, there’s only one or two up to four, depending on how big the school district is at any school. So that’s kind of where I found myself. So I ended up just substitute teaching. And I was a nanny for a little bit. And I was just trying to find that job. And so in 2010, I finally found my perfect PE job at a middle school in my town. And it was definitely faith. It’s one of those things where you get hired, and I walked in the building, and I had three interviews. And for some reason, when I walked in that building, I knew I was like, this kind of feels like home, I really like it here. And with that being said, that’s where I was for 10 years, I was at the same middle school, teaching sixth, seventh and eighth grade PE and health. In addition, I also was a girls lacrosse coach for middle school, as well as I was in the summer. And fall did a couple of travel girls lacrosse programs, mostly with high schoolers, I chose to work with high schoolers because I didn’t teach high school. So I wanted to get a little bit more high level coaching at that. And so that was super exciting, kind of like dribbling a little bit of softball here and, you know, helping out and during those 10 years, when I got my job, I knew specifically that I was not going to be a teacher for 30 years or 20 years. I knew that right away. And I just knew by the time 20 or 30 years would have elapsed that it would have been changed at the time where it wouldn’t be somewhere I wanted to be. And I knew that there was a path after teaching for me. I just didn’t know what it was at that time. And so as I was going, you know, throughout the years coaching, and I taught driver’s education, so I was in cars with teenagers really scary.

Sujani 6:58
Yeah.

Stephanie 6:58
Because, yeah, it’s very scary, especially with the amount of traffic in the town that I was in. It was a beach town. It was a coastal town, it had college students, it had retirees. So it had- it had the boatload of all of the perfect driving conditions.

Sujani 7:16
Yeah.

Stephanie 7:17
And so I went through all of that. I also had a bus license, because I was a coach.

Sujani 7:22
Yeah.

Stephanie 7:23
I also drove my lacrosse team to all the games, I drove other sports teams as well, they needed and also on field trips, you know, to like Myrtle Beach. So I’m going through and I’m, you know, collecting all these things. And I realized in like the summer of 2018 2019, about a year where I just was feeling like, I don’t know what it was, but something was like, hey, it’s time to go.

Sujani 7:49
Okay.

Stephanie 7:50
It’s time it’s time to go. And I wasn’t really sure what inside was telling me it was time to go. But in 2019, like July, August, and all of a sudden, I am signing up for the GRE. I am looking at graduate schools for public health. I am doing all of these things. And it was like, I felt like a robot. I like all of a sudden just felt this need to be like, Alright, it’s time to go. So I did all those things that I needed to do. And before I knew it, I was applying I was spending a ton of money on like, I visited Emory University in Atlanta, I didn’t want to visit Pittsburgh, know what that place is like, because I’ve lived. I’m originally from Southeastern Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, and I knew it was gonna be cold up there. So didn’t need to visit. And then I visited a UNC which was only two hours for me, you know, I was making these decisions. And like, before I knew it, it was almost there was a moment in my life where I was like, Oh, my God, I’m applying to grad school and I’m 37 years old. It was scary.

Sujani 8:54
Yeah,

Stephanie 8:55
It was it was really scary. Because I knew that. How would it be going back to school when I was this old? Like, how would that be? But not only that, you know, like three months later, actually, like a month and a half after I visited Emory was like that first little blip of that virus. COVID-19.

Sujani 9:14
Yeah,

Stephanie 9:14
So I have this like experience of not only teaching during a pandemic, trying to figure out that whole situation, but then transitioning into being a student and another job, you know, like, how was graduate school? And a pandemic gonna look like? Would that be worth my money? What is the school going to do to make sure that we’re safe?

Sujani 9:40
Yeah.

Stephanie 9:40
Especially a public health school, the number four, public health school in the nation. And you know, right across from the CDC, like, how’s this going to work? And I’m like, Should I do it? And it was scary. It was scary. It was really scary. I decided to stay in North Carolina for the first year and be remote because I didn’t want to be away from my family, my support system. And so being part of the teaching profession, and just seeing that kind of go through the changes, and then being part of like higher academia and seeing how that was changing as well, during a pandemic was eye opening, I would journal every day, just kind of to give myself kind of an outlet of like, what it was like a to go through a pandemic and be a graduate student during a pandemic.

Sujani 10:29
Yeah, I think, you know, so many things here. And I’m just like, curious, you said, you know, up until 2000- and was it 18, 19? Like, there was nothing inside of you, that was telling you that you needed to look for something else. But all of a sudden, there was something that was like, Okay, you got to go from this teaching profession. And you kind of alluded to the fact that you didn’t know exactly what that was. I’m curious, like, did you like reflect on that afterwards? And consider why you were pulled towards public health at that moment, because 2018-19 the pandemic hadn’t hit so we can kind of say, okay, there was so much going on around you, perhaps there was some influence there. But this was before the pandemic took place.

Stephanie 11:23
Yeah, it was. I made a decision about like, five months before it took place. But the timing, I couldn’t have asked for better timing, to be honest, because it helped me transition in life.

Sujani 11:35
Yeah.

Stephanie 11:35
So when I was younger, I watched this movie called Outbreak, super old has the CDC in it, it’s about, you know, the monkey and the Ebola virus. And I became sort of obsessed. And ever since I got my undergraduate degree. For some reason, this might sound kind of odd. I just really wanted to work for the CDC straight up. And so part of that decision to transition from one thing to another was this, I didn’t have a husband, I didn’t have kids, I kind of did this YOLO thing. Like, I don’t want to live with the regret of not knowing like, ‘Could I be an epidemiologist’, ‘Should I go to graduate school and try to, you know, receive this public health degree.’ I’ve seen so many people in my life and people that I’ve just met, either like on their deathbed, or like, I’ve just heard their stories of regret. And I just knew I didn’t want to be that way. I didn’t want to live without regret of not knowing. And so that kind of prompts me and kind of urged me a little bit where I felt like I was spinning my wheels as a teacher, and I wasn’t getting where I wanted to be. Meaning I felt like I had more to offer the universe. And so that kind of pushed me in that position, which I’m grateful for. But it definitely felt robotic. At first, I felt like what is doing this? Okay, great. Let’s keep going.

Sujani 13:00
Yeah, that’s super fascinating for me to like, think about. So at any point of that, like, prior eight years, did that movie or the interest for public health ever come up?

Stephanie 13:14
Yeah. So when I first started teaching, you know, as I was coaching as well, we had to, right, I think like 2011 2012, there was a concussion law that came into effect in North Carolina. There also was an incident within our county where, you know, I believe it was a cross country runner fell and got a concussion, we didn’t have any protocol in place for him to come back. Like we don’t have a safe protocol at that time. And so we then had this, in addition to all the other paperwork they have to turn in, there was now concussion paperwork that not only their parent had to sign off on, but also the student. And so in conjunction with these laws that were being put in a meeting, a lacrosse coach that has a pretty good high amount of concussions, girls and boys, but for the most part, I do coach women. I just saw so many times where my girls weren’t safe. They were lying to me as far as their concussion symptoms. And the doctor’s note situation was getting a little kind of dicey. And so there was a documentary that Sanjay Gupta put out called big hits broken dreams, and it was actually filmed in Greenville, North Carolina. Greenville Rose High School, and it talked about the problem with concussions in football and how our piece of legislation in North Carolina got basically established because of these two young football players in North Carolina, Shaquan Waller and Matthew Feller it’s called the Feller Waller concussion piece of legislation at the time she was our governor he signed it into law. And for some reason, I just became so fixated on this documentary. And if any of my kids that I’ve taught listen to this podcast, they’re gonna know the be like, Coach Bernie used to let us what happens watch that all the time, because it was such a good piece of just like, you know, concussions aren’t just sports related, you know, they can be in any, any form, but I was just so passionate because I did play sports, I was an athlete, you know, I was the coach, PE teacher, it kind of my life revolved around it. But it was just so interesting that this one thing, having a concussion that we can’t physically see with our eyes, is affecting these young athletes, these you know, these kids, these humans, because they’re not realizing that their brain is not something that we can transplant, we cannot go get you want to at Walmart.

Sujani 15:53
Right?

Stephanie 15:54
We can’t get you another one. There is no transplant, you get one brain and we need to treat it as something that’s really important. And so showing that documentary, to my kids and just, you know, seeing how like one of our our high schools, our local high schools was actually ended as well. So that kind of gave a little bit more of an incentive to watch it but being obsessed with the CDC, having that like documentary come out, and then just seeing like, how they kind of partnered with UNC and Kevin Gus Coates is like that pioneer of working with the NFL like talking about CTE. That’s something that I’ve just been really passionate about. I’ve been a Philadelphia Eagles fan for my whole life. And the NFL is something that has always been like my number one sport that I follow, going to the Eagles games with my family. And just I guess that all compounded into me just having this like passionate interest surrounding CTE concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

Sujani 16:59
Yeah, it’s almost like you had all of these interests and things that were important to you already kind of like circulating you and your life. And then at this moment when your body kind of was like, Okay, it’s time for a change. All those pieces came together. And it already like your mind already knew what that next step was, and you like, kind of refer to it as this like, robotic moment. And I wonder if that’s what happened right then because it was already kind of existing in your life. And all the pieces just kind of came together at that moment when it was right.

Stephanie 17:30
Yeah, absolutely. You nailed on the head. It was a couple of those things just hanging out back and like your subconscious, like, it’s not come to the front yet. But aha moment where, you know, you’re just like, oh, maybe I should pursue that. And I did.

Sujani 17:46
Yeah. I’m reading Brawny- Shoot I forget her last name, but it’s the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying? She’s not a nurse. She has she’s a carer for individuals who are ready for this? Yes, yes, in Australia. And she talks about the moments of surrender for herself, you know, when she’s kind of like, wanting to control everything that’s happening in her life, and then eventually just trust the universe and surrenders herself and lets the universe kind of take the next step for her. And that’s what it kind of reminds me of your story of, you know, at this moment where you’re like, okay, something’s happening. I’m writing the GRE, I’m looking into grad school. My mind must know where it’s going.

Stephanie 18:30
Yeah, I agree. I do believe I can. I think I live my life that way. Actually, I just asked like the universe, what like, what job should I have? Like, after I graduated, like, what should I be doing? Like, obviously, like, what I’m doing isn’t working to tell me what I need to be doing. Because apparently, that’s their job. So I do actually believe in that for sure.

Sujani 18:51
And you talked a bit about, you know, journaling, as well. And I think those are all helpful pieces, when you’re kind of stuck at a point in your career where you don’t know where to go next. Just journaling, reflecting. putting the pieces together, kind of in that act of practice, also kind of lends a hand in that whole process.

Stephanie 19:10
Yeah, I agree. It’s a really good thing, that people who if you ever feel lost, or just kind of, you know, I have all these these swirling thoughts. Putting it to paper is definitely helpful in a lot of different ways. And even if you don’t just sit there and like, just doodle, you know, swirl up.

Sujani 19:29
Yeah, absolutely. So you know, you you decided to go to Emory University and go through a Master of Public Health Program. Was that a part time program? Or did you completely say goodbye to your teaching career and go all in into your grad school experience?

Stephanie 19:47
That’s a great question. It was kind of dicey at first because of the pandemic. And so I knew I said, Yes, to Emory around March or April, but it was still up in the air because I knew I will wasn’t moving to Atlanta. And I was waiting for that schedule to come out and to kind of see and see if I can kind of make it work. Like, can I teach PE online? Because that’s where we were at the time. And can I take these graduate classes? Like, can I do that? And you know, I’m type A overachiever. I’m like, Yeah, of course. Of course, I can teach, of course, I can teach and go to grad school. Let’s do that. I had 16 credits, by the way, I was like, Yeah, let’s do that. And so because I’m an honest, upright individual, that I would like to let everybody know what I’m doing, I pitched it to my principal. He was like, okay, but then it ended up not working out, I had to resign. And I was devastated. Because I already had that, in my mind. I’m like, this is how I’m going to do it. And this is the time that I have the classes. And, you know, this is what I’m going to teach the first week, and I knew it was going to work for me because as a PE teacher, I taught first nine weeks of school, I taught health. And so that was a little bit easier than teaching the physical part. Because, you know, even though we were just still online and doing assignments, doing the health portion online is much more doable, in my opinion. So that was kind of rough. And so I had to say goodbye very quickly. Actually, I didn’t get to say bye to my kids. I didn’t get to say bye to like the staff. Really. It was almost like the second week, punch in the face. So March 13 2020. It was a Friday the 13th I finally picked my lacrosse team. We were ready to go. My team was so good. And like I’m not this wasn’t exaggeration. I’m so excited. I really knew that. Like, I was like, yeah, we’re definitely going to win, like, county champs like my team is stacked. This is amazing. And then I had to instruct them to take everything home, like take home your books, take home all of your gear, take home, your lacrosse to everything, take everything home, take everything in your locker. Because inside, I knew that we were going to be shut down. And we were and I never saw them again.

Sujani 22:05
Oh, that’s heartbreaking.

Stephanie 22:07
Yeah, it is heartbreaking. And I mean, you know, like, I was close to a couple of families and parents. So I was able to see some of my lacrosse players. But like, as a whole, I did not see that eighth grade class really ever again. And so it was it was sad on so many different levels. Like, you know, we’re all going through a pandemic, but like, I just never got to say bye. And I had this whole like thing in my mind of how it was going to be. I kind of like put together in my head like, Alright guys, you know, this is really hard decision for me. But you know, I’m, you know, I had this whole thing, and I was never able to do it.

Sujani 22:48
Yeah, that kind of like goes back to your decision to take this next step in your career, right? Because at this point, you’re you’re kind of having to decide between continuing to be a teacher, or going back to school during a pandemic. And and it sounds like you made that decision kind of quite firmly to say, Yep, I’m going to go back to school. And yeah, and my teaching career that I’m hearing was very difficult. But what a new kind of said, Okay, this is my path, and I am ready to say goodbye, or were you not given that option, and you had to say goodbye.

Stephanie 23:23
So it was kind of like this, like bidirectional thing at one moment. So I was ready to say goodbye. And then like, part of me was like, Yeah, but I don’t have to, because I’m teaching online, but then I’m also going to school online. So I might be able to make this work. You know, I’m definitely one of those like, I can make this work, let’s do this. And so all of a sudden, I’m like, trying to put these things together to make it work. And then I did it. And so I was like back to like square one. And I’m like, okay, and then the school year starts and I you know, I’m starting into grad school, and then everything just starts going into place where I wouldn’t have been able to sustain what I was doing at my school for my kids. And also, as a new student in graduate school with 16 credits online all the time, it wouldn’t have been sustainable. And because we were still in the early stages of like checking in on our kids making sure that they were okay, and doing all these extra duties just to make sure that everything was kind of going seamless. And we were kind of flip flopping. I don’t know if you remember that in the beginning. It was absolute chaos. That’s kind of how it was online. Like everything was so chaotic. And so I don’t think emotionally I would have been able to handle that.

Sujani 24:38
Yeah.

Stephanie 24:38
And so a lot of my friends that were like, you know, Coach you are you’re fine. Don’t worry about it. You made the right decision. Do school.

Sujani 24:47
Yeah.

Stephanie 24:48
And so I started up just in school. I did, you know, some lacrosse lessons on the side so that I can still see, you know, some of my kids and my students just kind of lurched and do do well, because that was like the last type of contribution that I wanted to be able to give. And then I actually in the spring of 2021, I was able to coach them again, because we were able to do sports.

Sujani 25:15
Yeah.

Stephanie 25:16
Yeah. So I was able to coach them. So I wasn’t able to coach the previous year, obviously, because it’s shut down. But in 2021, my schedule allowed it, I worked it out with the school. And I was an employee again. So like, I was still doing all that stuff. And it was a very, very short season, it was only one month because they had to compress everything, due to time loss from COVID. And so that was probably like the best I had an Easter egg hunt for them the one day, because I was just like, oh, man, I gotta spoil these kids.

Sujani 25:49
Yeah, let’s make it fun. Right?

Stephanie 25:51
Right. So we had an Easter egg hunt with our lacrosse sticks. And that was, you know, I’ve done that I did that years ago. But I was like, We need to bring this back. And I don’t know, it was just fun. And I just really was grateful I had that last moment. So while I didn’t get to say bye to my eighth graders, I was still able to like, just coach this last cohort for a month.

Sujani 26:10
Yeah.

Stephanie 26:11
So that kind of left my soul happy.

Sujani 26:13
And like kind of yeah, just like wrap things up at the middle school. Right.

Stephanie 26:17
Yeah, absolutely.

Sujani 26:18
So in May of 2022, you ended up graduating, I suppose, right from your MPH program at Emory. And so I’m assuming that was like, you know, partially virtual. And you did get an opportunity to go in person. Is that right?

Stephanie 26:37
Yeah. So my first year, it’s a two year program. It’s four semesters. And so the first year completely, I lived in North Carolina, coastal North Carolina, where I live for most half my life. And then I knew it was time to go, it’s time to move on. So we were going to have in person classes starting August of last year. So I moved almost a year ago to Atlanta. And yeah, we were able to go in person, we had to wear masks for pretty much the whole time January got a little crazy. So we had to, we stayed online for pretty much the whole month of January till decided to maybe pack up and leave. Then we went back in person still with masks. And then I believe like a couple months later, we dropped the masks for a little bit. And then I graduated in a gym at Emory University with people and I walked across the stage. And I yeah, I felt like there were so many of you know, my classmates that, you know, they got to walk across for their masters. But when they came right from an undergrad, they did it in 2020. They didn’t while-

Sujani 27:45
Yeah.

Stephanie 27:46
I know a lot of us were so nervous for walking. Because I mean, I wasn’t I’m older I got I got to walk in my graduation of her a long time ago. But I will say that we were all like not trying to like get COVID before walking across the stage or like getting sick because like, one by one like family members were like, I got COVID I need a ticket. Do you have a ticket? My mom has COVID, you can take my ticket. It was like a big, like just giving each other graduation tickets because everybody was getting sick. And so I know, like a couple were just like, oh, man, if I can’t walk for my grad degree, and I didn’t walk for my undergraduate degree like this is gonna be a bummer. So a lot of them were like holding up, like trying to like, do the least, so that they can at least like get through it and be able to go to our graduation. But yeah, there were there were like, 500 of us. And then yeah, everybody’s name was called to. So yeah.

Sujani 28:50
Well, congratulations. Congratulations. That’s, that’s a journey for sure.

Stephanie 28:55
Yeah, it definitely was.

Sujani 28:57
I want to go back to a statement that you made much earlier today. You said you’re going back to school at the age of 37. How was that experience for you? You must have, you know, had to, I guess you know, now that I’m thinking about this question, you are a teacher for those 10 years, so you kind of never really left that world of education and you know, school. So it may not have been too new for you. But I know, you know, for myself for example, I’ve I think I graduated almost eight years ago from grad school. So you know, now going back into school settings sitting down, that whole process is going to take some time to get used to I’m curious to hear how it was for you.

Stephanie 29:39
Oh man, it was wild. It was wild. So I remember there was or my research methods class. And I felt like I was floating through that class for so many reasons. So I haven’t you know, I would in my teaching career like I’ve gone to so many different workshops and all this other stuff writing emails will be the amount of writing that we were doing and like the amount of projects that we’re working on was hard for me like to work in a group and like type and like formulate ideas, because I haven’t done it for such a long time. And so putting like documents together and just like getting in that groove took me a little bit. And I had to, like, I literally had to apologize to some of my group mates, because I’m like, Guys, it’s been a hot minute, since I’ve done any group work of putting, like a project document together a paper, please forgive me. And like, they really did help. Like, there were some people that straight up, held me up, for sure, that first semester that were just like, so nice, and like so empathetic to my situation, because, you know, some of them were DPH students, so like, they were coming in, like physical therapy. So they were, they’ve been in school for like, six or seven years at this point. Meanwhile, you know, I had a regular job for like a, you know, a pretty good amount of time, that like actual like sitting down and putting your best foot forward writing was something that definitely took practice. But as time went on, I didn’t have a problem organizationally, I didn’t have a problem, email, you know, like trying to keep up with myself, it was mostly just like the writing a lot of writing, I am not a writer, writing is not my friend, we do not hang out ever, I really try not to hang out and write, it is not my favorite thing. I am not I am not the strongest writer, many people can vouch for that. So, you know, I just knew that was one skill that even though I wasn’t great at I still was going to try my best and ask for as much feedback as possible. And, you know, I’m glad I went to the process.

Sujani 31:46
Do you recall any, you know, specific ideas where you kind of like told yourself, oh, you know, maybe I would have done it this way, just, you know, in case we have any listeners who are in a position to make those changes, you know, in mph programs at universities, it might be just a nice way for them to hear firsthand from a recent student?

Stephanie 32:11
What you can do to really advocate for yourself is just the first thing that I did was just talk to the professor, that’s really what I did just to see like a little bit more like they offered me more information or more sources. And then if that wasn’t working, then I kind of just went a little bit above to whoever my advisor was to kind of talk with them. So just advocating for yourself, making sure that, you know, if you’re not getting what you need, then find somebody who is going to do it. So just letting the person either that you know is doing your thesis or helping you with your capstone or whatever like project, it is like just making sure that this person has the bandwidth to help you. Because sometimes it isn’t, obviously, if you’re in a class, and that’s your professor, that’s going to be it. But there are people that are within the expertise that you might find that you’re interested in, and see if they have the bandwidth to just give you the sources that you need. And it’s a lot of like connecting, putting yourself out there and just straight up just emailing people that you don’t even know, but in the most professional way possible.

Sujani 33:19
Yeah, absolutely. And I think you know, just to kind of jump on this topic, there are a lot of resources within the universities. And, you know, one that comes to mind, I think has been underutilized just based on some conversations I’ve been having with universities are the career centers, I think, you know, if the school that you attend has career centers, and you’re, you know, at a point where you’re looking to graduate and thinking about what the next step is, I think this is one great resource and these individuals are positioned and being paid for to help you out with that next transition. So I think like maybe looking for individuals who you know, will be supportive in that topic. And like you said, Stephanie, like if you’re going to Professor for a course that’s like a prerequisite and you have to take it in that person’s not approachable or willing to support there’s maybe very little you could do but I think you know, just being resourceful talking to people, seeing who you can connect with to advocate for yourself. I think that’s exactly it.

Stephanie 34:22
Yeah, I agree. The Career Center is probably one of the most underutilized services especially if it is offered like even as an alumni like Emory like I can still go ahead and use those services. And I’m not sure if that’s offered anywhere but even when you’re in school the one thing that I do regret is not meeting with them earlier. I met with them in March and I should have probably met them in like November, December but let me tell you those projects are no joke. They will just suck your soul and then you have nothing left and then you’re like okay, I should I should be contacting Career Services. So I would say number one, making appointments, making sure your resume is updated, making sure that you are connected to as many people as you can within like your area of expertise or interests on LinkedIn. I mean, we know how LinkedIn works like, random people will ask you to be like connecting. And you’re like, sure, yeah, sure. Mph yeah, let’s go. Or if you want to follow somebody, like specifically, I am interested in traumatic brain injury, CTE, all those things. So I follow a lot of researchers and people that are dealing with that, specifically, I work in injury and violence prevention. So I follow a lot of people that either work or are in like actual partners of that specifically. And don’t be afraid to email and or send messages to anybody that you think might be a value just to your resources, networking, I know, it’s probably a cliche, but it will get you somewhere that you never thought you would because people know people know people, and they kind of connect you to where you need to go, and what you’re interested in, and I wouldn’t have the job of what I have right now, if I did not connect with certain individuals at the time that I did.

Sujani 36:19
That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. So I read this on your, you know, LinkedIn kind of about section. And you said, you know, you, you loved educating adolescents. And we heard that I think loud and clear, during your kind of, you know, reflection of the 10 years that you did work with them. But then you then go on to say that it was necessary for you to get out of your comfortable bubble by the beach, and then move on to larger challenges to push your limits and grow professionally. That’s a hard thing to do. Right? For many of us who have a great job that we really like, we know what the scope of our work is, we have a great salary, we live in a town or a city, region near our families and friend. But then sometimes there’s something that wants us to explore something different, maybe a new place or a new job, a new opportunity, new new people. But it’s just so difficult to like, break away from that comfortable bubble. And I’m always inspired by individuals who are able to take that step and try that new thing. I know I heard a bit about it, as you told us your journey so far. But could you maybe talk about that, and maybe as our as we wrap this episode up, maybe just give us a few words of wisdom or or just encouragement for anyone kind of thinking about a new move and stepping away from their current comfortable position that they’re in?

Stephanie 37:58
Yeah, I definitely can. And so when I was teaching, you know, I literally was at the best Middle School in my county. I had the best PE team. I had a brand new office, I had a brand new gym, brand new bleachers, everything was I’ve been waiting for, it was great. But it wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t it just it didn’t matter to me anymore. It didn’t matter because I knew that whatever was happening at my school, whatever, you know, I went through the feelings that I was I was having, was it going to be different at another school. It wasn’t going to be different in another state. It wasn’t going to change because I thought I’m like, Okay, well, why don’t we go to different school stuff? Why don’t we go to a different state. And I knew it was going to be same situation, different location. And so that kind of helped me make my decision of Alright, I need I need to change, there’s something something’s gotta give every area of my life you’ll stagnant. And I’m not growing, I felt like I just needed I had more to give in, in so many different ways. And so that’s how I made that decision. And not only just to leave, but I also wanted so badly just to take that memory of that school that I started with my teaching career. And I ended it the way I ended it. And I just wanted to hold that in my memories because it was so near and dear to my heart. A lot of things happened over that decade. A lot of good, a lot of bad. A lot of growing a lot of kids, so many kids I had over 200 every year. So that’s what like 20,000 get like so many children and I just loved educating them and they were just so funny and stressful, but like hilarious, but also blessum you know, and so if you’re feeling there’s something that you’re thinking about and there’s like a dream that you have and no matter how unattainable you think it is? I’m gonna sound super cliche, write down the steps that you think you can take to get there. Whether it’s four steps, five steps, 10 steps, break them down to make them a little more manageable. So you don’t think it’s unattainable. Granted, I was like, Listen, I want to work for the CDC. I want to be an epidemiologist. Now, do I work for the CDC? No. Am I an epidemiologist? No. Do I have that skill set where I can do either other things? Yes. So well, I didn’t get to my top goal. I realized that that’s not really what I was looking for. I was just looking to be a better human. I was just looking to take the skill set that I had as a teacher. And I felt like that was like, literally my my existence. My friends were teachers, my friends, friends were as teachers, like I was, I was friends with my my students’ parents, like it was my whole life was revolving around it. So it was scary to not be part of that anymore, because that’s how I identified like, I identified as an educator as a teacher. So I knew it was time to move on. And it was super scary during a pandemic. But I just found that within myself, where I was just kind of doing things like robotically, like I’m just like, oh, okay, I guess I’ll do this. Oh, and then I’ll do this. And so just making those steps. Because again, like I said, I did not want to live with regret.

Sujani 41:29
Yeah.

Stephanie 41:30
I have a little story just wrote this. So before I left, North Carolina, like when I moved a year ago, my neighbors were super nice. I had a set of neighbors where I just bought them flowers, because they were super nice. And like, I know, they didn’t want like anything like a value. Like they just were those type of people. They’re from California and all over the world. And they just, they’re just super cool. And so I gave them like flowers from Walmart. You know what I mean? Just thank you so much for being you know, upstanding neighbors. Thanks for the conversation for looking after me. I just really appreciate you. And I told them my story about regret. Then, the next like, every time I see her, she’s like, every time I see flowers, stuff, I just think of the story. You told us how you don’t want to live with regret. And that’s why you did what you did. And I’m like, what exactly? I thought that was kind of nice. Yeah, kind of touching.

Sujani 42:24
It is it is. It’s, it’s super cool. And thank you for sharing that, Stephanie. And I think you’re our at least I very much hope that your words will inspire at least one listener to kind of take that bold step into something that they were considering or thinking about doing. I think I aligned with you quite well in terms of, you know, putting out your wishes and goals out into the universe and working towards them. But this like idea of not living with regret and kind of taking that bold step is something I’m working on right now.

Stephanie 43:00
That’s great to hear. And I hope whatever it is that universe kind of gives you an answer. I’m thinking about you. That’s That’s amazing. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I do hope that whoever does listen to this, that they have any questions, they’re more than welcome to reach out to me, they can reach out to me on LinkedIn, Stephanie L. Verna, and you can connect, you can send me a message, you can do all the things. And I am more than willing to answer any questions about public health programs, jobs, just what do I do as a student I really like you know, I really, I do work with graduate students now. And it’s definitely near and dear to my heart, just helping people that either just need a little tips and tricks, or I don’t know how to do this, or educating is my passion.

Sujani 43:49
But so nice. Thanks for that, Stephanie. And yeah, well, you will definitely link up your LinkedIn profile in the show notes. And I think folks can probably add a note when they’re sending you a connection invite, and they can let you know that they heard you and then they’re coming from this podcast. So you don’t think it’s a random invite.

Stephanie 44:09
Yeah, sure. No problem.

Sujani 44:11
Perfect. Thanks so much, Stephanie.

Stephanie 44:13
Thanks. I hope you have a great day.

Sujani 44:17
Hey, so before you go, as promised, here’s a bit more about the public health career club. So when I think back to the successes that I have had about the almost 70 or so guests that I’ve interviewed, who have discussed their successes, or when I think about the hundreds of professionals that I’ve interacted with a lot of the reflections circle back to having had the right people around us, right? And so knowing the power of this, whether we call it community, or we call it support circle, or your Public Health Network, essentially we’re talking about the people we surround ourselves with to lead us to success. And so knowing this, we are launching the public health career club with the vision of building the largest global public health community. So essentially, we are building the space rooted in community to become 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 meaningful relationships with other public health professionals from all around the world, the club will also offer other great resources for career growth and success, such as mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, career growth strategy sessions in the form of workshops, seminars, and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. And so you can learn more about how to join the club by visiting phspot.org/club. And we officially will be opening the doors in October of 2022, with perks for founding members. So be sure to get on the waitlist for more information. That’s where we’ll be communicating all the information. And so to kind of wrap this up, I want to tell you that, you know, as I built the PH SPOT community these past five years and now, as we are working to build up the public health career club, this one quote from Oprah always comes to mind. And it’s this, “Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.” And that’s exactly the space we are creating, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals from all around the world, who will not only push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And I can’t wait to see how this will have a ripple effect in the world as we work to better the health of our populations. And I hope you will be joining us.

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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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