As part of our Day in the Life: Grinnell Alums series, we're catching up with Grinnell alum Dorothy Sheu, '10. Learn more about Dorothy's experience at Grinnell, and where it led her professionally.
Fast Facts about Dorothy:
Major at Grinnell: Psychology, with a concentration in Neuroscience
Class Year: 2010
Favorite class at Grinnell: History of Psychological Theories
Current Job Title/Organization: Project Manager, University of Pennsylvania
Hobbies: Pets, calligraphy, PowerPoint, and cooking
Which non-STEM class at Grinnell had the biggest impact on you (professionally or personally)?
The course "Sociology of Health and Illness" sticks out in my mind. I loved reading stories about people's experiences with health and healthcare. The more I read, however, the more I found unique patient voices were getting drowned out by common themes: Patient did not have a car to get to their doctor. They got sicker. Or even: Patient had to pick between spending money to put food on the table and going to the doctor.
These themes persisted regardless of location, culture, and age. And they were almost always worse for people of color, people with less education, and people with less money. This class helped me realize that these stories were not unique to the individuals who told them. Populations of people shared a narrative in which their health was determined for them. Moreover, these determinants of health were man-made problems that society had the power to change. I wanted to do something that changed things for good so people could access healthcare regardless of whether they had a car or money.
And so, today I work in the field of public health. I have Grinnell to thank for that.
What led you to pursue this field and how did you prepare for it?
Throughout my time at Grinnell, I took classes that ranged from examining queer theory in the Bible to benchwork with the bacteria h. ducreyi. I loved every class. Yet no one class gave me a clear sense of what I wanted to do after Grinnell.
Then, in my third year, I studied abroad for a semester. I interned at a rural health clinic in Senegal. While rotating among the pharmacy, maternity ward, and vaccine clinic, I saw my coursework intersect: Biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology came alive for me as I learned about a community's health. What a joyous realization. A career did exist where I could pursue all the things I loved. Public health! Thus, in my fourth year at Grinnell, I applied to graduate programs in public health.
Describe your role on a healthcare team or within the healthcare system.
When you're not feeling well, you schedule an appointment with your doctor. To get to your appointment, you need transportation. After seeing your doctor, you're handed a prescription. You're told you have diabetes and given a set of instructions. It's all a lot to take in. And none of the new information sticks. At the very least, you manage to walk over to the pharmacy and they give you a bottle of insulin. After returning home, you open the refrigerator door to store your insulin - only to find your power was shut off. Lights will not turn on. Phone is dead. What do you do? Where do you go to find someone who can help?
In my last job, I worked on a program that helped in situations like this. Our care teams would canvas communities, knock on doors, and ask patients how we could help. Patients would have all kinds of needs. Our care team, staffed by a nurse, social worker, and community health worker - would meet those needs.
To help them see their doctor, our care team would teach patients how to schedule an appointment - navigate phone trees, read those tricky insurance cards, and even find a new doctor if the patient didn't have one or wanted to try someone different. Many of our patients didn't have a car and/or money for the bus - and so our care team would arrange transportation to their appointment. After the doctor's visit, our team would follow up with patients to educate them about their health, walk them through any instructions given, and even explain how to manage their medicine. At home, if their lights didn't turn on or they couldn't refrigerate their medicine, our care team would call the local gas and electric company and get that restored.
Within all of this, I worked behind the scenes. Hospitals funded these teams as well as my position. My job was to partner with local nonprofits. The nonprofits represented the voice of the community. As the liaison between the hospitals and nonprofits, I championed to include community voice from the start; by including nonprofits during the design of a new program, they could have a say and adequately hire for community health workers. I also empowered nonprofits to train and grow staff by scheduling regular staff training, like one with local housing authorities. Even more, I made sure that nonprofits had a seat at the table for decision-making. For example, we chose to allocate some of our hospital money towards transportation because of the feedback that nonprofits shared about how difficult it was for patients to get to their healthcare appointments.
My role was to help nonprofits so that they could help meet patient needs. My role was to help those who help others.
Share a piece of career advice you wish you knew as an undergraduate student.
Find someone who's willing to mentor you. What you gain in skill and knowledge from a mentor will take you further in life than most titles or salaries.
Also, the Grinnell dining hall's selection of food is hard to beat. Enjoy it while you can.