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Making connections in public health: Jessica Schill, Class of 2019

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

Scanning the more than 5,000 acres of wheat, soybeans, oats and corn that make up her family’s cash crop operation, Jessica Schill sees public health in action.

Located in Palmerston, Ontario, the farm provides a real-world example of agriculture’s connection to population health - from food choices and healthy eating to sustainability, climate change and food insecurity.

A student in the Master of Public Health (MPH) Program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Schill’s family farm was the setting for a recent field trip with the members of her learning team. She invited the group of five classmates to experience a taste of rural life and learn more about the connections to public health.

“My parents gave us a tour and talked about how farming impacts public health,” she said. “The majority of members on the team are from the GTA, so they were quite interested to learn and see real agriculture in practice.”

“One of the highlights for them was riding in a combine,” she added with a laugh.

Schill’s great-grandfather started farming in the early 1920s. And at 21, her father bought his first farm, launching a successful cash crop operation. “Farming is a way of life for my family,” Schill explained.

Breaking from this tradition, the 23-year-old graduated from the collaborative nursing program at York University in 2018.

Her final placement as a nursing student took place in an emergency department, where she saw many cases that could have been prevented or minimized with better awareness and education.

“Nursing led me to public health,” she said. “Working in hospitals and long-term care settings showed me the importance of health promotion and prevention.”

Schill is currently working as a nurse in Chesley, a small town northeast of London, on weekends while completing the MPH Program. She balances the demands of school and work by scheduling her time and keeping focused on the task at hand. “It comes with weird sleep patterns,” she said. “But nursing school prepared me for the reality of balancing clinical and academic responsibilities.”

Called ‘the realist’ by her learning team, she says her clinical experience helps put lessons into perspective for her classmates. “I can share what is happening on the front lines of health care,” she said. “I also interact with patients and see the challenges they face.”

Learning teams are assigned for the duration of the MPH Program’s eight-month coursework section. These smaller groups complete assignments together and engage in discussion around class readings and case studies - an approach that helps MPH students identify strengths and develop leadership skills.

“It’s challenging to build consensus with six people that come from diverse backgrounds and offer different perspectives,” said Schill. “But after working late hours to complete assignments together, we’ve really bonded and appreciate each other’s contributions.”

She appreciates the Program's interactive elements, as well as its career focus."The MPH Program is career-driven," she said. "It prepares students for the workforce and provide excellent career resources, such as cover letter writing and interview skills."

The young professional is looking forward to the Program’s 12-week practicum, considering a placement that focuses on either infectious disease surveillance or agriculture and food insecurity.

She’d eventually like to tie her interests and professional training together. “I’d like to explore the food insecurity issues we’re experiencing worldwide because of our growing population,” she said. “There are many issues that relate, including malnutrition and infectious disease.”