UIC students Müge Chavdar, Erin Howes, Paula Satariano, Janine Salameh, and Izumi Chihara (left to right) attend the 2017 MLC Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington.

By: Erin Howes, MPH Candidate in Community Health Sciences and Maternal and Child Health

This April I had the incredible opportunity, thanks to the UIC- Center of Excellence of Maternal and Child Health, to experience two firsts: visit Seattle and attend an academic conference! The 2017 Making Lifelong Connections (MLC), held in Seattle, Washington on April 5th-7th, 2017, hosted current and former trainees from the various Maternal and Child Health (MCH) training programs. MLC provided a platform for personal and professional networking and to share ideas on how to advocate for MCH populations.

The conference kicked off with any student’s dream – drinks, appetizers, and poster presentations. Listening to other student poster presentations was an informative experience where I learned so much and felt inspired for my own capstone project, which I will conduct next year.  One of my favorite presentations was from a social worker in Seattle focusing on refugee health. This presentation drew my attention because of my interests in public health. I currently work at an FQHC in Chicago, Esperanza Health Center, which is located the community of Little Village. This community is predominantly immigrant and most residents are of Mexican decent. I was interested to see how the health status of immigrant communities in Seattle differ from those in Chicago. I learned about the healthcare system in Washington, the different populations they serve, and  how the differences in healthcare policy affect women, children and families.  It’s amazing how different maternal and child health issues can look from state to state and I never would have learned about Washington’s needs without meeting these fellow trainees.

Attending the MLC also gave me a deeper appreciation for the families that are impacted by MCH programs and services. During another portion of the meeting, I had the opportunity to meet a mother who has children with a special healthcare need. This woman collaborates with the LEND (Leadership Education in Nerodevelopmental and Related Disabilities) Program. She shared her story and informed us that she is a foster parent to 7 children and that 4  of these children have disabilities. Beyond being a foster parent, she is also a community health worker and a researcher.  She used her experiences to inform her research and to understand the caregiver experience. She also examined the needs of children and youth with special healthcare needs as they transition to adulthood and their higher risk of homelessness. I appreciated the opportunity to hear this narrative because it provided me the context to appreciate the importance of  programs that serve families who have children with special healthcare needs and how multiple systems should come together to protect vulnerable population.

Because this conference places a strong focus on building connections, many of the events allowed for interaction and reflection. A key activity that continued throughout the conference was the “Ring of Connections” in which every participant was provided with their own personal business cards to trade with new connections throughout the conference. This served as an icebreaker and allowed people to get to know each other, while also having the contact information to maintain communication following the conference. We also did some speed-networking, which allowing us to meet dozens of trainees in minutes.

Finally, the conference provided three wonderful, thought-provoking keynote speeches from booming professionals in the MCH field. One speech made a profound impact on me was given by Lauren Raskin Ramos, the director of the Division of MCH Workforce Development under HRSA. She spoke about her professional journey, taught us about the possibilities of our careers, and the power of making change by serving in government. One piece of her speech that stood out to me was her advice to seek people who see you as a leader. Sometimes we need to look for outside associations and organizations for leadership roles. Lauren encouraged us to pursue those skills and opportunities if they are not in front of you, and to be the kind of leader you would follow. I appreciated the reminder from Lauren who motivated me to re-evaluate my strategy to strengthen my leadership skills, and provided me an example of how to combine my passion for MCH with my goal to become a leader in public health.

I truly enjoyed this conference and I look forward to connecting with MCH leaders in the future!

To learn more about Making Lifeling Connections, click here.