Making a Positive Difference with Public Health

Published on June 7, 2024

Natalie Peters 2024

Natalie Peters (22BA, 23MPH) grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, and is now a community health educator for the Dallas County Health Department in Adel, Iowa. She recently shared some background about her path to public health and career.

How did you become interested in public health?

As a freshman at Iowa, I started as an open major because I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to study or where I saw myself working at the end of my four years.

Once I took my first introductory public health classes as an undergrad, I knew that’s what I wanted to study. It made so much sense to me to focus on preventing diseases in populations rather than treating individuals after they’ve become sick.

I was an undergraduate public health student when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. During the early stages, I saw inequities be front and center when marginalized and minority populations were contracting and dying from COVID at a much higher rate. I also saw the important role that communities and local public health played in supporting people’s health during that time. That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue an MPH in community and behavioral health as well.

Can you describe your work and the type of projects you work on?

The purpose of my job is to connect with the residents of Dallas County to promote healthy behaviors and share resources that improve their quality of life. One of my main projects is being a nutrition educator for the Pick a Better Snack program. I go into elementary school classrooms to talk to students about a different fruit or vegetable each month. We usually read a book, do a physical activity, and then the kids get to try the fruit or vegetable of the month.

I also do a lot of community outreach for the health department. Usually this means being a vendor at community events in our county. This is a great way to share our resources and health promotion materials with community members, as well as offer some fun, healthy activities for kids.

I try to share health information with our residents in several ways, including writing weekly news articles, routinely being interviewed by a local radio station, and hosting educational events with community partners like our local libraries.

My most impactful experiential learning opportunity was being a graduate research assistant for the Building Health Equity initiative. The program focuses on educating public health department staff on health equity and how to incorporate those principles into their work. Through this experience I saw the unique role that local public health plays in promoting the wellbeing of their communities, and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in a health department after graduation.

I also mentor several high school and college students every semester to introduce them to public health and guide them as they create their own projects.

What public health classes and experiential learning experiences help you most in your day-to-day work?

As a health educator, I’m always thinking about how I frame my messaging and what additional barriers people may be facing that prevent them from making healthy choices. The theories I learned about in the Health Behavior and Health Education course have been very helpful to me for that reason.

I was also able to volunteer with the nonprofit Healthy LifeStars a couple different times throughout college. The experience of teaching elementary students about healthy habits and leading fun physical activities with them was great practice for the job I have now as a nutrition educator.

Did any of your experiential learning experiences help lead you to your current job? If so, how?

My experience leading nutrition and physical activity lessons as a Healthy LifeStars coach prepared me to do so in my position now because I knew how to communicate with kids about healthy habits. This experience also helped me to understand just how much I enjoy working with kids, so I’m thrilled that I get to do so in my current role.

My graduate research assistantship also deepened my understanding of health equity and how to contextualize that to a local setting, so I felt prepared to take on a role in local public health for that reason as well.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Teaching my nutrition education lessons is definitely my favorite part of my job. The kids are always so excited to learn about new fruits and vegetables. When I see them being curious or trying a new healthy food that they’ve never had before and liking it, it really makes me feel like I’m making a difference.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It can be overwhelming to be a part of the field of public health and see all of the issues in the world that threaten people’s health and wellbeing. Working in community health and focusing on a smaller scale has made it feel much more manageable for me. It’s rewarding to connect with my community directly. I know that I’m making a positive difference in the world, even if it’s on a smaller scale.

Photo by Joey Loboda

This story originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of InSight.