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Using Health Communication to Support Community Engagement

Sarah Bass ’20 recognized her love for communications early, earning a bachelor’s in communication studies from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. With no firm plans after graduation, she was recommended for a graduate assistantship program where she could stay and earn her master’s degree while serving as a teaching assistant.

At 22 years old, she found herself teaching health and crisis communications to undergraduates. Although she loved the curriculum, she hadn’t planned on being a teacher. Her heart wasn’t in it, and she eventually left the program to return home to Chattanooga to begin a career in logistics.

“Soon after, I found myself getting stuck,” Bass explains. “I started thinking about what I truly love to do: It was health communications.” Her employer offered her the opportunity to work in Chicago, so she decided to relocate. In this new role, she would spearhead an account involving the movement of U.S. mail, handling day-to-day operations and building rapport with the client.

“Because I was moving to Chicago, I figured I might as well apply to my dream school— Northwestern. I applied for the MS in Health Communication program last year and was accepted,” she says. The program’s Saturday classes appealed to her, especially since she didn’t have friends or family close by and hoped the program will help her build connections in Chicago. 

“I’ve never felt as supported as I do here,” she says. “We’re always in touch with our advisor, Monica—we affectionately call her ‘Momica’ because she’s always looking out for us. There’s ample support for anything we want to do.”

As a result of the pandemic, Bass lost her job in March. Unsure about next steps, she reached out to MS in Health Communication Program Director Bruce Lambert for help. “He was so supportive,” she says. “He put me in touch with people who were hiring or willing to do informational interviews. It’s so much more than I could have hoped for.”

Another valuable resource for Bass has been Northwestern’s External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS) office. “Every week, Ms. Cornwell, the Associate Director, gives us something we can use to determine how to market or brand ourselves. During the second week of class, I came to her for help with an upcoming job interview. She was so excited about me getting an interview in the field that she looked at my résumé and cover letter right there. She gave me pointers she was going to give to the entire class a month later.”

Bass says her fellow students have been just as supportive, offering encouragement, cheering each other on, and even reminding one another of projects or big deadlines on the horizon.

Although she wasn’t sure what she envisioned for her future when she enrolled, Bass says the curriculum has helped steer her in the right direction. “This program does such a good job of opening up your mind to all possible avenues in health communications,” says Bass. “Most of us didn’t realize at first how much we could do with the degree.”

One moment that stands out to Bass: listening to guest speakers who spent their time helping communities work through social and health inequalities by finding out what they needed and uncovering solutions to help.

Now that she’s learned more about what these community engagement organizers do, she plans to make a difference by following a similar career path. “I want to put boots on the ground, listen to people, figure out where there are gaps, and help people discover resources. I’m ready. The Northwestern name has opened up so many doors for me already to find and pursue what I love.”