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Master of Public Health Student Puts Passion into Practice

Sartain MPH Drexel
Courtney Sartain, MPH student, second from right at Philadelphia's City Hall.

December 22, 2016

Drexel University President John Fry is committed to Drexel's future as the most civically engaged university in the country and graduate students like Courtney Sartain are at the heart of this quest.

Sartain, a master of public health student focusing on Community Health and Prevention in the Dornsife School of Public Health, came to Drexel looking for hands-on opportunities and strong mentorship.

"After attending the Open House at the Dornsife School of Public Health, I fell in love," she said. "I was set on coming to graduate school at Drexel. The emphasis on community service and fieldwork experience was what I really excited about."

Dornsife's classwork-to-fieldwork curriculum for their graduate students requires a first-year practicum and a second-year community-based master's project, both of which enable students to develop skills and put their knowledge to work in tackling real-world issues.

Having completed an undergraduate degree in nutritional sciences, Sartain planned on becoming a nutritionist, but Drexel's focus on civic engagement with established partnerships to back it up, sparked her newfound passion for community health and prevention.

"What I thought I wanted to do and what I am actually doing is very different," explained Sartain, who discovered she could have a broader reach in combining her nutrition science background with public health. "It was not until I came to Philadelphia that I became interested in food insecurity and food policy."

It didn't take long for Sartain to put her new passion for quality food access into practice.

Tapping into the public health and community organization network of Drexel, she started a food policy fellowship with the Philadelphia Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. Responsible for supporting two emergency meal sites in West Philadelphia, Sartain coordinated benefits enrollment and medical testing services for guests, in addition to setting them up with education, employment, mental health and addiction resources.

Reflecting on her time connecting with individuals and families at these valued meal sites, where she continues to volunteer, Sartain said, "I really learned about the importance of collaborating with communities. Listening to community members really helped me to build trust and meaningful relationships."

"I also learned the importance of community empowerment," she said. "It is essential that we work with the community, and understand and address their needs first and foremost."

Sartain took this understanding to her next effort: as a research assistant on a national research study called Children's HealthWatch, which has a site at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia led in partnership with the Dornsife School of Public Health's Center for Hunger-Free Communities. She is responsible for interviewing and monitoring families with young children who are experiencing unreliable access to quality food and providing them with community resources. "I thoroughly enjoy the research that I am doing and am learning new things every day," she said.

Sartain is also finding inspiration from the mentorship of Drexel faculty such as Mariana Chilton, PhD, MPH, professor of Health Management and Policy and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, reflecting, "I am lucky to be part of such a wonderful, impactful team."

Chilton is equally obliged. "Courtney has been a tremendous asset to the Center for Hunger-Free Communities," she said. "We are enormously grateful for her courage, perseverance and compassion in all that she does for us. Her work directly translates into empirical and practical evidence for improving public policy."

Sartain has found the hands-on fieldwork and expert guidance for which she was looking. "Professors have very extensive networks, and do not hesitate to connect you to colleagues," she described. "Everyone that I have met at Drexel has been willing to go the extra mile to ensure that I am successful in my academic and professional endeavors."

Before completing her master's degree this spring, Sartain will pursue her community-based master's project: a nutritional needs assessment at the Chester County Food Bank. Being outside of the city brings a new perspective and Sartain is motivated to understand quality food accessibility in less urban communities. She will partner with the food bank in conducting focus groups and analyzing data to ultimately create reports and future recommendations that address food insecurity issues.

With coursework in program evaluation, health communication, and grant writing that applies to her fieldwork, Sartain said, "I can really appreciate the curriculum because I am able to learn things in the classroom, and then directly apply them into practice."

Upon graduation, guided by sound advice from Drexel faculty and professional staff, Sartain is planning to enter the non-profit sector within her field before pursuing a PhD in public policy with hopes of solving hunger crises in the U.S.

It's certain no matter what her next step is, civic engagement will now be the inspiration.

"I love to volunteer. There is something about helping people that makes me feel like I made a small impact. If one person did one small act of kindness every day, it would be a beautiful thing," Sartain said, adding, "My cohort is filled with passionate, young professionals, and I look forward to a better future knowing that we will be out in the field working together."