A UC Berkeley student’s time as an undergraduate comes with endless possibilities. Students are often interested in many things and have a hard time knowing which to pursue. If you ask Leonard D. Schaeffer how to get some direction, he’ll tell new students to ask themselves a few simple, but important, questions.
First of all, what are you good at? Second, what would someone pay you to do? Finally, but most importantly, what makes you feel good?
Many jobs can answer the first two questions but may fall short for the third. These three questions and his lifetime of experience as a business leader, policy expert, and philanthropist are part of what inspired Schaeffer to establish the Leonard D. Schaeffer Fellows Program at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health’s Center for Public Health Practice & Leadership. He wanted to give undergraduate students the opportunity to explore government careers that are health related through 10-week internships.
Schaeffer, who served in the federal government as administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration (now CMS) and at the state level in Illinois before founding the health benefits company WellPoint in 1992, says he does not intend to push the students into government careers definitively. Rather, he hopes to expose them to the inner workings of government and the many ways that public health and government connect. He wanted to afford this opportunity to undergraduates because he feels that they are still incredibly open-minded, whereas graduates have more likely honed in on what they want to do in their careers.
“This is supposed to create a group of people who have actual experience with government,” Schaeffer said, addressing the inaugural cohort at a graduation luncheon in Berkeley on August 16. “So that, should you be in a situation where you have to make decisions or vote, you will have a sense of what government can and can’t do. And hopefully if you thought it made sense for you, maybe you will be involved in policymaking at whatever level of government you choose.”
The program, which launched this summer, gave 10 inaugural fellows from various backgrounds and majors experience at nine different agencies at the local, state, and federal level. Their time in the program provided numerous opportunities to network with key legislators and to even take the reins on important projects, giving insight to the workings of government as it is related to public health.
Dispelling myths, revealing realities
“Before this fellowship, I stereotyped the majority of local government workers as apathetic and contributing to the slow nature of government work,” Miguel Flores, an intended public health major, admits. Flores entered his fellowship, interning with the City of Richmond, worried that government workers seemed to be indifferent about their constituents. He was pleasantly surprised to find that his preconceived ideas about government and its workers did not fit the reality.
“This notion could not have been more false,” he says. “Never did I meet anyone apathetic toward their work. Passionate and caring people work in local government and work hard to do the best possible for communities. Channeling this same passion will be a driving force for me in deciding my career path.”
During his internship, Flores assisted in the implementation of the Environmental Community Investment Agreement (ECIA) Community Grant Program, participated in the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and worked with Nystrom United Revitalization Effort (NURVE). He particularly enjoyed the chances he had to shadow his preceptor at key meetings for ongoing policy programs, to attend educational racial equity trainings, and to meet important California legislators in health policy. All of these activities contributed to his newfound discovery that health care policy cannot be achieved without passion and empathy from multiple sectors of government.
“Community health is shaped by all bodies of government, and moving forward, jurisdictions should focus on understanding the multidimensional aspects of health,” he says.
Nelie Sithong, an intended public health major, also came to the fellowship program somewhat disillusioned with government for its slowness to change and pass bills. As she interned with and conducted research for the California Research Bureau and the California Correctional Health Care Services, Public Health Unit, her mindset shifted.
“Engaging in the complexities of governmental affairs can be easily discouraging, especially in considering the vulnerability of bills to the legislative process,” Sithong says of her experience. “In witnessing the frequency with which bills fail to pass, I’ve learned that failure isn’t an endpoint, but an opportunity to improve and try again.”
Sithong’s most memorable project at the California Research Bureau was the development of a survey for identifying barriers to timely foster care placement. At the California Correctional Health Care Services, her greatest contribution was creating educational materials for informing patient-inmates about Tuberculosis evaluation changes.
“The fellowship provides opportunity to explore my interests in a real-world application with a supportive team along the way,” she says. Sithong would recommend the program to other undergraduate students looking for insight into government processes.
Connections and collaboration
Although it may seem counterintuitive, undergrad Smitha Gundavajhala was especially excited to attend networking events during her 10 weeks at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“It was a privilege to be able to speak with such experienced people—people who were on the ground doing work I was reading about,” she says. “It was also a really pleasant surprise to see how excited they were to speak with me.”
During her time in Sacramento, Gundavajhala worked on a cost-benefit analysis of substance abuse programs offered both within prisons and to parolees in the community. She focused specifically on the “evidence” aspects of evidence-based policymaking in a project management role.
Anna Costello, a fellow who recently graduated with a degree in Molecular Environmental Biology, also cited the opportunity to collaborate with public health professionals as a highlight of her internship at the California Department of Public Health, Richmond.
“I have loved learning from and collaborating with experts whose intellect and care for their work and our state are unmatched,” she says. “My mentor taught me how important it is to develop interdisciplinary and interdepartmental connections in order to complete work to the highest caliber. Our time together was not only a learning opportunity, but inspirational.”
Costello worked under her mentor, an epidemiologist, to collect data as part of a research project for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, seeking to better understand exposure pathways and risk factors for lead poisoning. Through this work she learned that in order to get projects done, you must know many different people with different expertise, Costello says.
Investing in and inspiring future difference makers
David Hu, who earned his BA in Integrative Biology in 2016, helped out the Alameda County Public Health Department by serving as a staff research assistant to the Public Health Commission. He created and distributed health education material on vaping to middle and high school students in the county. He also worked with the Oakland-based HOPE Collaborative and their Healthy Corner Store Project, where he helped plan community events and surveyed residents.
Hu recalls a conversation he had with an East Oakland resident of over 40 years while surveying. “We talked about his community and its transformation from the early 70s to now. He talked of the impoverished conditions caused by policymakers and how that has affected his community. His wary words indicated a certain jadedness about him, having seen numerous politicians promise change, but never seeing the results in his own neighborhood. He insisted that no politician understands what it is like to live there, and they definitely would never move their families here. He said he would be the same way – he would never raise a family here if he had the choice.”
The time spent talking to the Oakland man gave Hu valuable perspective on his internship and academic work. “I was very grateful and appreciative of him for sharing his stories and his opinions with me,” says Hu. “In the end, I learned, the true employers of the public health department are the residents.”
As Leonard Schaeffer hoped when establishing the fellowship program at Berkeley, Hu found that his internship has inspired him to pursue an MPH in addition to an MD in the future.
“I learned that as long as health disparities continue to exist, work needs to continue to be done at the systemic level,” he says, “and I see myself playing a role in doing so in the future.”