So you just graduated college; now what? My own undergraduate journey was filled with internships and extracurricular activities that I juggled on the side of an expeditious quarter system. Unknowingly, it also had its fair share of uncertainties, and even change of major, that I had not accounted nor prepared for, ultimately thwarting my initial plans. Switching my major into public health halfway through my 4-year plan left me with 6 quarters and 1 summer to gain relevant field experience to pair with my classroom instruction before being released into the real world. As I rushed to apply to research labs and volunteer at community health events, I felt that these opportunities were merely a sample of the experience I needed before I entered the workforce or a graduate program. Through several meetings with academic counselors and office hours with professors, I decided to plan for a gap year in order to gain more field experience. Before then, I had very little knowledge or understanding of what a gap year was or how to navigate or structure that year since there was no precedent set by my older cousins or family friends. I decided that taking an extra year before attending grad school would prove beneficial to me for several reasons: I had time to research exactly which grad program I wanted to attend, which city I wanted to create connections and network with, and which concentration of public health I wanted to pursue in my professional career since I was relatively new to the field.
After connecting with a colleague from a service organization on campus, I chose to apply to National Health Corps Chicago since she was a current member at the time. I imagined uprooting my life from California halfway across the country would bring culture shock, demographic differences, and weather adjustments. Although I had an idea of the value of a gap year, I could not have anticipated how much knowledge, array of skills, and indispensable experience I gained. From the hands-on projects of teaching health education classes to meeting students 1:1 to discuss healthy lifestyle goals to participating in a multitude of training sessions on public health-related topics to serving at local community organizations on weekends, I had an all-encompassing half year of the service year before the COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns of schools, clinics, and most other establishments across the globe. Coincidentally, the pandemic garnered global recognition of the field of public health and many more health injustices and inequalities surfaced. Every interaction, project, and training I had reflected the impact of social determinants of health, especially within social and health justice issues. I owe all these connections and realizations to my gap year, which allowed me to recognize that the systemic infrastructure disproportionately and disparately affects marginalized populations. This opportunity has imparted knowledge for me to decide to pursue a Master in Public Health in health policy to target the roots of the social determinants of health that negatively impact communities. I could not have done this without a gap year in service.
Figure 1: Gap Year Ahead [Photograph]. (n.d.). Pittsburgh Technology Council.
This blog post was written by NHC Chicago 2020-2021 member Alison Wong.
Alison is a Health Educator at Heartland Health Center - Kilmer/Sullivan.