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Grad builds career using her passion for political science and public health

| Judy Berthiaume

Thanks to a stint volunteering on a political campaign during high school, Aimee Gillespie came to UW-Eau Claire knowing that she wanted to study political science.

“I found the whole electoral process to be interesting and exhilarating,” says Gillespie, an Eau Claire native who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2019 with a major in political science and a minor in public health. “I also enjoyed how political science blended history, economics and philosophy, and addressed contemporary social issues.”

Once she was at UW-Eau Claire, a combination of engaging faculty, innovative courses and real-world experiences outside the classroom helped Gillespie discover she also has a passion for public health, a field of study that she found pairs well with political science.

“One of the best classes I took was called Environment and Sustainability Policy,” Gillespie says. “We learned some of the history of the environmental movement in the United States, practiced conducting a stakeholder analysis, and generally discussed strategies to ‘reach across the aisle’ to address pressing environmental policy concerns.”

Intrigued by the class because of its focus on laws, policy making and public health as they relate to the environment and sustainability, Gillespie began exploring the university’s public health program, and eventually added a public health minor to her academic plan.

Her political science professors encouraged her interest in public health, allowing her to tailor her papers, projects and presentations to her interests in health-related topics, particularly in the areas of gender, sexuality and women’s health, Gillespie says.

“Attending a liberal arts school like UWEC was great preparation for a career in public health and policy,” Gillespie says. “Both fields require an interdisciplinary and flexible approach, and I found that the political science and public health curriculum gave me the flexibility to sample a variety of courses.”

Through three internships — one at Bolton Refuge House, one with the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and one with an Eau Claire City Council member — Gillespie gained experience with human services, issue-based campaigning, volunteer recruitment and writing in a real-world setting.

Serving as an advocate intern at the Bolton Refuge House was a powerful experience, but Gillespie found she also enjoys working on issue-based campaigns, like her work during her internships at WLCV and with the city council member.

Those internships helped convince her to use both her political science and public health expertise in her future career.

“Public health enables me to learn about issues I am passionate about, and political science introduces me to the power of policy and politics in influencing health outcomes,” Gillespie says.

Currently, Gillespie is completing a service term with the National Health Corps, an AmeriCorps program located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She serves as an HIV/STD outreach and education coordinator at the Allegheny County Health Department, specializing in providing services for elderly and opioid-using populations.

She soon will return to the Chippewa Valley to work with the Wisconsin Health Corps, where she will serve at the Eau Claire City-County Health Department as a community health liaison, specializing in conducting community outreach for the Family Planning Clinic and WIC program.

Her political science-public health expertise makes her a good fit for both positions, says Gillespie, who plans to begin graduate school in fall 2021 to study public policy.

“From what I see in the health care field, the focus is moving toward preventing disease rather than constantly responding to illness and crisis situations,” Gillespie says. “To address why illness happens, we need to understand the social determinants of health, which are things a person is often born into, such as socioeconomic status, neighborhoods, physical environments and family trauma.

“All of these things will influence a person’s health outcomes throughout their lifetime. The field of public health constantly seeks to improve these everyday systems to improve health and well-being for vulnerable, traditionally underserved populations.”

Given the important work being done in the public health field, Gillespie says she is glad that beginning in fall 2020 UW-Eau Claire will offer a public health major in addition to its minor.

The major is an especially good fit for her alma mater because so many Blugolds have a passion for social justice and are looking to make positive change in the world, Gillespie says.

Studying public health will help these students develop a comprehensive, data-oriented perspective on a variety of issues, such as water and air quality, climate change, sexual health, global pandemics and police brutality, she says.

Interest in public health is booming, in part, because public health professionals are at the center of conversations around many current events, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, says Dr. Karen Mumford, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Watershed Institute.

“It’s a powerful time to be offering this new major given everything that is happening in the world right now,” Mumford says. “Many of our current and future students are looking for ways to change their communities or the world. This major, on its own or combined with another academic program, can lead to jobs that are critical to making a difference in communities everywhere.”

People with public health degrees hold a variety of positions, such as epidemiologists, public health educators, community health workers and environmental scientists.

UW-Eau Claire’s public health major pairs well with many other majors, such as social work, math, sociology or anything in the sciences, Mumford says.

Core courses focus on public health principles and practices, epidemiology, health policy and demography. Students then select courses from departments across campus to gain additional expertise or to connect to other fields of interest.

At the end of the program, students will complete a final capstone experience, which may include internships, research experiences or public health education and outreach campaigns.

The experiences she had as a Blugold in and out of the classroom gave her the skills and confidence she needed as she began her career, Gillespie says.

Her political science courses helped her to understand the nation’s history and the political attitudes that led to policy decisions that influence the nation’s health today, while her internships helped her see the impact of those decisions, she says.

Gillespie participated in multiple study abroad and immersion programs, allowing her to experience different cultures and meet people different from herself, all of which helped her prepare for a career in public health, she says.

An immersion program, India and Global Feminism, helped Gillespie learn about women’s political struggles abroad. A second program took her to Ecuador, where she learned about culture and geography. A domestic immersion program, Embracing the Somali Experience in Midwestern Public Schools, taught her about health and education policy among immigrant communities.

On campus, Gillespie was part of the Advocates for Sexual Assault Survivors student organization, and a Student Senate committee dedicated to raising awareness of sexual violence on campus.

All of these experiences enhanced her college experience and are  helping her stand out when looking for jobs and applying to graduate schools, Gillespie says.

“Read books, listen to podcasts and generally seek perspectives from people who don’t look like you, and who don’t come from the same geographical area that you do,” Gillespie says of her advice to future public health students. “Every human possesses a set of implicit biases, and the sooner you work to understand your own, the sooner you can connect with the populations you are serving and pursue social justice and health equity.”

Photo caption: Aimee Gillespie is using her expertise in and passion for both political science and public health as she begins her career.