As a Bachelor of Public Health student, walking into the Preventive Health Conference 2022 made me nervous. This conference was filled with people living everything I’d studied – working in fields as diverse as policy and modelling, nutrition and psychology, and they were advocating for the values and communities that are central to everything we do. I felt inadequate – I am in the first generation of my family to finish school, the second of two to have finished Year 12, and here were countless people with PhDs. I had never been to a conference before, and I didn’t entirely know what to expect. Thankfully, what awaited me was an experience that was invaluable to me both personally and professionally.
My experience of #Prevention2022 and what I learned as a Bachelor of Public Health student, a thread:
— Annabelle Whitehead-Broad (@Annabelle_WB) May 14, 2022
As I sat down in the first session alongside the only person I knew, I noticed the differences between myself and the other attendees. I was a student; they were seasoned professionals. I was queer; most of them were not. I was from a low socioeconomic background; they, I assumed – and later surmised – were not. However, after a very funny Welcome to Country (featuring ‘I’m a little teapot’ dance moves), the first two speakers broke down some of the barriers I felt between myself and the people around me. Professor Emily Banks AM presented an inspiring picture of the power of prevention. Her beautiful graphs spoke to more than my love of data – they spoke to our progress and our joint potential in the preventive health space. Dr Lyn Roberts AO presented the latest National Preventive Health Strategy, an endeavour that I and the people around me would be joined in implementing and advocating. It showed me that despite our present differences, we were all united in a shared future.
Yet no such future could happen without collaboration, and no collaboration could happen without networking. This was what intimidated me most, but also what excited me – meeting intelligent, insightful, and passionate people, all committed to a common goal – health and wellbeing for all. It was surprisingly easy to strike up conversation, as people would introduce themselves simply because they were standing near you. At the exhibits, you could discover shared interests with fellow delegates. I was afraid that people might judge me for not yet holding a degree or for my gender presentation. Yet everybody was friendly – I deeply enjoyed meeting people with diverse academic backgrounds and interests, people who had spent decades in public health and my fellow early-career professionals. I learned a myriad of things about public health and received hard-earned wisdom about how to transition from university to the workplace. I got to chat with speakers who knocked my socks off and people with careers I envied. We were all deeply grateful that at last we could gather in person.
During these opportunities to network with individuals, there were exhibits of organisations that work in preventive health. Despite my best attempts to be engaged in public health in Australia, there were organisations of which I was previously unaware. While I was fascinated by their work and learning more about their focus areas, as a student I was acutely aware that these were potential employers. This was a rare opportunity for me to engage with their representatives. It was a chance to speak to their employees and learn more about the application processes, whether they took student placements, and what kind of jobs were available. It also helped break the ice with other delegates, some of whom I have kept in contact with.
There were many things I learned about myself and public health more broadly at the conference. For one, I was inspired by Dr Michelle Jongenelis, who made me realise that I aspire to be an enemy of predatory industries that compromise the wellbeing of millions. I learned that the things that made me insecure when I arrived – my low socioeconomic background, my gender, sexuality, chronic illness/disability, and life experiences – were a strength. The relative homogeneity of the public health workforce around me assured me of my place within it. The various presentations that lamented ‘hard-to-reach’ groups, or inequitable outcomes of marginalised communities, affirmed that the presence of different, diverse, and marginalised people in the public health workforce is crucial. With a diverse workforce, we can enact change from within communities, not outside them, and we can deliver safe and appropriate programs, policies and practices that empower these populations and achieve the elusive equitable outcomes we strive for.
Attending the Preventive Health Conference 2022 was the best decision I’ve made for my career. The knowledge and wisdom I gained were invaluable. I was challenged by the speakers – especially in the plenary session on disrupting whiteness. I was offered incredible opportunities that could further my studies, career, and personal development. I learned so much about preventive health, the public health sector, the conference’s sponsors, and different career paths. And perhaps most importantly, I met lovely people that taught me and inspired me. I would highly recommend the Preventive Health Conference to all students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, who are interested in public health. It is a delightful experience that will provide you with unique opportunities, and it may well be the highlight of your year.
Annabelle Whitehead-Broad is a PHAA member and President of the Queensland University of Technology Public Health Student Society. Follow Annabelle on Twitter at @Annabelle_WB.