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MPH alum will use his two passions –storytelling and politics –to write his future in government

“I sort of live and breathe policy. Policy takes ideas and values, philosophies and innovation and attempts to mark those things that exist in a realm of imagination and thought and emotion, and then to map them into society in a very real, lived way.”

By Kathryn Stroppel

Nate Capener, MPH ’22, is set to begin a prestigious Presidential Management Fellows Program. Although he’ll be working at the highest levels of government, he says it’s equally important for public health practitioners to work in communities of every size. 

“Every community needs those who can create or support a vision for what can be, and then the drive, commitment, and innovation to make those visions as close to a reality as possible. We owe the people we work with and the public we serve to be the ones who never give up, who work toward an ambitious, ethical and sustainable vision of the future.” 

In the following Q&A, Nate shares his journey to and through his public health education and offers important advice for those interested in a similar path. 

What did you want to “be” when you grew up? 

The two things that always stayed with me growing up were writing, or any creative storytelling medium, and politics. I believe strongly that change initiatives and leadership require enormous amounts of creativity and an ability to somehow articulate visions of how things should be. I feel everything I’ve done thus far to try and prioritize creativity in my life has a great outlet in global health policy. This is part of why I love global health so much – it’s ultimately solution-oriented and about helping others even in situations that seem too entrenched to make any difference. In order to be solution-oriented leaders I believe we need creativity, expressed in this case as an ability to imagine a better system. 

Why did you choose Oregon State and the MPH? 

I chose Oregon State’s MPH program primarily because I felt it was a program that has both an established history of excellence and community involvement, and an extremely exciting future. Growing up in Oregon, I knew that OSU had a reputation of scientific rigor, but also that the school prioritizes working with communities, on the ground, engaging in actionable outreach. I wanted to be a part of a program that combined the best of theory and practice, and I wanted to engage with communities both in the U.S. and abroad, and for me OSU seemed to embody that theory-practice outlook. 

What interests you about policy? 

I sort of live and breathe policy. Policy takes ideas and values, philosophies and innovation and attempts to mark those things that exist in a realm of imagination and thought and emotion, and then to map them into society in a very real, lived way. When we imagine what can be, and how we think the world should operate, we are at some level imagining policy. 

I believe that at its best, policy and the ensuing ethical, equitable and sustainable implementation of policy has the potential to contribute to widespread social, economic and health-related change. To use policy to affect change toward greater health, greater empowerment, equity and economic liberation, is, to me at least, to use policy in the way it should be used. 

“Public health is obsessed with solutions.” 

What difference do you hope to make in people’s health and well-being? 

If I make a contribution, I wish it to be toward greater empowerment and sustainability. I want to be a part of creating systems and policies that exist to empower those who are actively disenfranchised by current systemic forces, and to create greater capacity for communities around the world and in the United States. Health does not exist in a political or economic vacuum at any level. Overall, I hope to contribute my efforts to making people and the planet sustainably healthier.  

Tell me about the Presidential Management Fellows Program. Why did you apply, what will you do and what do you hope it will enable you to do in the future? 

The Presidential Management Fellows Program is a brilliant program and an opportunity for growth in public health leadership that is very unique and designed to produce the next leaders of the U.S. federal government. I applied because I believed I could grow individually as a leader and practitioner of global health, and because I could engage in a public service opportunity that allows for impactful work on a national and global scale. I also thought that through the program I could work in a mission-oriented way, a way that focuses on helping others, while also progressing my career.  

Do you have any advice for students considering or currently enrolled in OSU’s MPH program? 

Take advantage of everything there is to offer at OSU in the pursuit of your goals with public health. Don’t be afraid to be dogged in the pursuit of your goals for your own education and career, and in the pursuit of greater public health goals working alongside communities and societies. Also, don’t be afraid to be ambitious in public health. Ambition doesn’t only take place with wide scale endeavors. It is equally important for ambitious practitioners to work at the local, smaller scale level.  

Public health is to me a beautiful field primarily because it acknowledges the value of collaboration and community and also because it is so very solution oriented. Rarely is there a discussion of these wicked problems without an immediate discussion of potential solutions. Public health is obsessed with solutions, and many if not most of the health-related challenges that face people and communities and societies around the globe are preventable. 

I suppose what all this means is to never stop using your imagination to imagine what can be. No great positive health changes would ever have happened without those who first believed they could happen. We are keepers of this perspective.