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New Graduates are Making Health Happen

Today I was recognized as the 2018 recipient of the Dr. John E. Worden Award from the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was beyond surprised when Dean Trudy Larson emailed me the news, and I am overcome with gratitude for this recognition. Below are the thoughts I shared with this year's class of MPH graduates about why a united front is so important to advancing public health right here in Nevada.

I just returned from the CDC’s 48th annual National Immunization Conference, and despite a climate of uncertainty around science, prevention and public health funding, healthcare, and more – the conference was full of almost fifteen hundred public health professionals there to learn from experts in the field, and from each other. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the CDC Immunization Division Director, referred to the attendees as a group full of unrelenting optimism, and noted how the daily work we are doing to promote health and prevent disease is truly making a difference. 

When we see rankings on immunization, tobacco use, chronic disease, per capita funding, and more – we are typically ranked as a state. That doesn’t mean what’s happening at the county, city, or zip code level doesn’t matter. It absolutely does. What’s happening upstream, downstream, on the river banks, in the village – it all matters. But in the end, we are ultimately graded as a state, as Nevada, and we know all Nevadans deserve to live safe and healthy lives – no matter where they live along the stream. So we have to approach affecting change together – knowing that every small and big step makes a difference. There’s a quote from Helen Keller that I’m often reminded of:

“The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”

One passionate person can change the world, and there are countless examples of people inspiring all of us daily. But in order to truly affect policy and create systems change, we need an entire team of passionate people collaborating across sectors, eliminating silos, and thinking big picture. We have to adopt shared goals, a common vision, and break down barriers of rivalries, competition for funding, misinformation, behavior change, and more. We have to stop and ask ourselves – how can we best work together to make Nevada a healthier place?

Public health has made great strides, and the list of its greatest achievements include things like immunizations, motor vehicle safety, healthier moms and babies, and more; yet we are still challenged with affecting knowledge, beliefs, and attitude changes. Despite a century of innovation, policy implementation, community education, and more – we are still tackling an array of preventable deaths and diseases. Generations of advocates have worked on these issues and made incredible progress, but there’s still so much work to be done.

This is where all of you come in. Wherever you are headed – injury prevention, immunization, food security, reducing tobacco use, providing health screenings, increasing access to healthcare, the environment, primary care – there are endless opportunities across our communities; and your chosen path of public health will save lives and create healthier generations. Because that’s what public health does every day. And as you’re building projects and programs – don’t forget about your colleagues in other places and sectors – what are their challenges? Barriers? Solutions and successes? Think about that quote from Helen Keller – what tiny steps are helping them push forward?

Nevada hasn’t achieved our historically high immunization rates because one healthcare provider, one organization, or one agency made it happen – we got here because we collectively persevered, set big goals, persisted in the face of challenges, took risks, looked beyond our local borders, and leveraged limited resources to affect the most change. It took time, passion, and that unrelenting optimism referred to earlier – but most of all it took doing it together, united with a common goal. It’s not always easy or simple, and we often hear "no", or excuses for why a project or idea won’t work; but we also hear a lot of “yes” and “thank you”.

I didn’t major in public health, but public health found me – through my graduate assistantship at Head Start, my internship at a women’s crisis center, my thesis on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and in various ways throughout my career. I’ve met colleagues who have become friends, and I can’t imagine working in any other area. I want to thank my friends and faculty at the School of Community Health Sciences for this wonderful award and recognizing the life-saving work happening at Immunize Nevada, and I want to thank all of you for doing the hard work of completing your MPH – which resulted in you sitting here today as part of the 2018 Spring Commencement.

Public health is hard, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Congratulations on your achievements – you are making health happen!

Heidi Parker, MA

Heidi Parker, MA

As executive director of Immunize Nevada, Heidi Parker, MA leads and engages a diverse coalition of staff, volunteers, member organizations and funders so they are passionate about vaccines and access to preventive health care across Nevada’s rural, urban and frontier communities. Bringing over two decades of experience in nonprofit program management, fundraising and marketing, she has dedicated her career to being able to affect her community in a positive way, whether working with Head Start families, victims of violence, college students or Nevadans needing immunizations.