Before Lauren Fein considered public health as a career, she worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer after graduating from college. She knew that in her position she would be tasked with moving to Hood River, Oregon, from her home in Boise, and developing a program designed to prevent teenage pregnancy throughout the county.
Fein spent her first few weeks of her volunteer position glued to her computer, poring over data and trying to find journal articles that would provide her with one solution or answer to help her prevent teenage pregnancy. That did not exist.
“There was a panoply of issues,” Fein says. “The issues I found led to more issues. It wasn’t just a condom issue, or self-esteem issue or cultural issue. It was all of those combined and more,” she says. Fein was intrigued. She realized that addressing problems like teenage pregnancy required a holistic approach that included healthy policies, environments and systems, in addition to comprehensive sexuality education, that would give teens the support and skills to make informed decisions.
It was this notion – the idea that she might be able to address outlying or underlying issues to prevent health problems in the long term – that drew Fein to public health, and to Oregon State, where her intrigue transformed into a passion. After graduating from OSU’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program in 2010, Fein is pursuing that passion with a job with OSU’s Extension Service.
Fein initially found OSU’s MPH program appealing because of the positive experience she had during a campus visit. “OSU just felt like home when I visited,” Fein says. “The faculty were really welcoming and honest, and supportive of me wanting to pursue public health.”
During her time here, Fein worked in a Graduate Teaching Assistant position in the health promotion department at Student Health Services, which gave her a real-world sense of being in the field. “All of the staff there are so incredible. They have a wonderful way of putting public health into practice through great programs,” she says. “It was such a great training ground to put what I was learning in the classroom into practice.”
Fein also returned to the Columbia Gorge for her MPH internship – she worked in Klickitat County doing a community food assessment with local grocers and community members to try and understand the barriers that prohibit people from having access to healthy food.
“Many rural residents live 50 miles from the nearest grocery store; they have to plan to get all their food at once and factor in food prices as well as gas prices and even bridge tolls,” Fein says. “That all adds up to make food more expensive for rural residents. And that’s just one of the barriers.”
After graduating, Fein returned to Hood River and to take an instructor’s position with OSU’s Extension Service. She is responsible for creating nutrition and food education programs for people who are using SNAP (food stamp) benefits in Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, and Wheeler Counties.
Fein will be helping people make healthy choices while learning to stretch their food dollars. She will also provide broader health education to the people in the rural counties she serves – anything from financial literacy programs and healthy aging to gardening, breast-feeding promotion, and health policy development in the community.
“The great part of the job is that in many ways, I get to create it,” says Fein, who has been in the job for 2 months. “Rural communities are very tight-knit, and have a little hint of frontier, ‘can do’ attitude. It’s really inspiring.” It also keeps her on task – in such a small town, Fein says she has watch what she buys in the grocery store. Chips and ice cream might set a bad example.
Still, the position does not come without its challenges. “People are economically stretched in rural communities, especially now,” Fein says. “They’re also spread out over greater distances, and have suffered recently from social programs they relied on being cut.” It makes Fein very conscious of how she divides her time so she can be as effective as possible. But it also gives her new ideas.
“I know there are a lot of people who will serve as community volunteers if I give them guidance or support,” says Fein. Also, she is getting more involved with social service agencies in the Hood River and surrounding communities. “One of my goals is to have Extension be seen as a critical, essential player that can contribute a lot to the community,” she says.