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Public Health alum returns to inspire students

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If you took away just one piece of advice from 2011 College of Public Health and Human Sciences alumna Natalie Johnston during her visit with students in October – it would be to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

That’s exactly what Natalie has done – and she’s proving to students how it was one of the best career decisions she’s ever made.

Natalie works for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Public Health Associate Program as a Health Program Specialist. As part of the program, she works as an associate in an HIV clinic in San Antonio, Texas, notifying patients of their positive STD results. It’s a job she never thought she would be interested in – but one she says is unique, challenging and rewarding.

“I get to be like a detective and I love that because I’m snoopy,” she says. “And the work I do is not thankless – people thank me all of the time because I help them by letting them know they’re infected. It really does feel great knowing I’m helping someone.”

Once the clinic receives a positive test for HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis, Natalie’s job is to first find the patient, make initial contact, then help them with treatment options and notifying their sexual partners.

“I think you’d be surprised with how much bad or misinformation is out there in relation to STDs,” she says. “Our work is important because we not only educate patients on their current situation and prevent them from spreading the STD to others without knowing, but also help teach them how to avoid these types of diseases in the future.”

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After graduating from the CPHHS in 2011, Natalie now works for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Public Health Associate Program as a Health Program Specialist.

Natalie did not study health promotion and health behavior with the intention of working in the field of sexual health education, but she knew she wanted to help people through prevention and couldn’t pass up this unique opportunity to work for such a highly respected organization.

“Working in healthcare opened my eyes to the time, effort and money put into healing illness and injury that might have been prevented through public health practices, and that’s how I realized I wanted to work in public health,” she says.

She earned this opportunity through working hard during her undergraduate years. As a student, Natalie made some bold choices and started trying new things such as internships and volunteer activities, including Girls on the Run and teaching English to recent immigrants.

“It really helps to get your hands dirty in all sorts of jobs because you never know what you might end up doing,” Natalie told students during her visit. “Sometimes if you step outside of the big city you can see more opportunities and gain a fantastic experience you might not have otherwise.”

As an enthusiastic advocate of the CDC’s two-year Public Health Associate Program, Natalie informed students on what they can do while still in school to prepare for an associate position such as hers.

“You definitely need to volunteer, have experiences outside of your culture, have an interest in public health and get involved in your community,” she says.

Students from across the CPHHS stopped by to meet Natalie and speak with her one-on-one as part of the college’s efforts to engage and connect recent alumni with current students.

“It really helps to get your hands dirty in all sorts of jobs because you never know what you might end up doing.”

“Connecting our students with recent alums is motivating and helps them to realize that they too can achieve their career goals,” says CPHHS Coordinator of Recent Alumni and Career Readiness Initiatives Kim McAlexander. “The college is working toward building bridges between current students and our successful graduates.”

Students say they learned a lot from Natalie and hope to follow in her footsteps by taking a chance on something new.

“Natalie was very easy to talk to and I got a lot of good information about what I can do in school now and how to apply to the CDC Public Health Associate Program,” says Exercise and Sport Science freshman Haylee Winden. “Seeing her successful path was reassuring that I can do the same thing or something similar.”

“I thought it was great; she was very personable,” says Health Promotion Health Behavior senior Katie Clark. “It was nice to hear from someone from OSU who is now an associate at the CDC. I’ve been looking into something similar and I learned a lot from Natalie and now know what classes I need to take that I normally would have overlooked.”

Natalie, who eventually wants to obtain a master’s degree and continue working in the sexual health education field, says her experiences at Oregon State and the CDC have made her more empathetic and prepared for her future.

“I love my experience at Oregon State, so I’m just glad to be back here hopefully inspiring students to try something new and unique like I did,” she says.