Looking Back, We First Years Have Come A Long Way

By Lindsey Wahlstrom, MPH ’14 in the Department of Epidemiology

After finishing my final exam, I was flipping through my long-neglected emails and came upon a request from the Communications Office at Mailman asking if I would be willing to write a blog post reflecting upon my first year as a Columbia MPH student.  My initial reaction was a wholehearted: “Yes, of course!”

I’ve always found it easier to type my thoughts and reactions rather than speak them.  With the delete key a mere pinky-stretch away, I feel more secure that I can do justice to my experiences as I hone their telling over many days and through several iterations.  This time was different, though.  As I sat down to start the post, my fingertips were speechless.

Lindsay in front of the Rudd Center

Lindsey in front of the Rudd Center

There are few ways to summarize the past several months, in part because my first year is truly not yet over.   I recently packed my bags and moved to Connecticut to begin a summer practicum at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. While there, I will oversee a national study and translate research findings into an advocacy toolkit to fight marketing of calorie-rich foods and beverages that target children.  On June 1st, I joined 1,600 of my NYC neighbors at Hike the Heights in Upper Manhattan, a community event that aims to encourage physical activity in local parks that I have been honored to co-chair this year.  And so, though final exams are completed, my first year has not yet come to a close.

Yet, despite the work that lies ahead in the program, we First Years have come a long way.  During the academic year I, along with nearly 400 of my peers, waded through the new Core Curriculum; survived classes that challenged the way we think and tested our intellectual limits (including my first math class in 10+ years); and made our way through the harrowing process of finding a paid practicum and garnering IRB approval in time to start the internship. Though, at times, life felt more than a little overwhelming, we are all better professionals and students because of these experiences.

The things I have learned extend beyond statistical analysis and epidemiologic study design. They have pushed me out of my comfort zone personally and professionally.  The lessons I learned in class forced me to pay attention to the questions that keep me awake at night and – at least attempt – to do something about them.  My professors have made an effort to tie the lessons in the classroom to real-life situations, inspiring me to action.  From Dr. Pavlicova reminding us to “not drink and drive” or “text and walk” at the end of each lecture, to the repeated reminders from Dr. Schwartz that a variable does not play a permanent role across all scenarios, but rather adapts to the context of the question at hand (a lesson with many implications for life outside of grad school). I have been pushed to think beyond the easy answer and to explore unchartered territory.  Even though these ruminations often occurred on caffeine-fueled sleepless nights, with the support of the faculty and my fellow students, I have been surprised at how far beyond my perceived limits I have been able to go.

In my previous posts, I’ve commented that true learning is what happens outside of the classroom.  I would like to amend that statement.  True learning is what happens when you take what you have learned in the classroom and apply that new knowledge to situations that test your skills.  Looking back, I’m amazed at all we have accomplished this year and cannot wait to see what our second year holds in store.


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