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Student Leader and Graduation Speaker Pays it Forward, Building a New Generation of Public Health Leaders

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Written by Tyler Smith on May 17, 2023

Ten years ago, Samantha Bertomen completed her undergraduate education with a degree in food and nutrition sciences. Even before starting her professional career in the field, though, she says she had her eye on a different option. 

“I’ve known since 2013 that I wanted a master’s in public health,” Bertomen said. “I thought about being a dietitian or working closely with nutrition. But the one thing that kept coming up was that there is more to health than nutrition and the things people are eating. It’s also the air they are exposed to, their built environment, finances and more.” 

Despite that realization, it was not until May 2021 that Bertomen finally decided the time was right to pursue her long deferred dream. She enrolled as a Master of Public Health candidate in the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at the Colorado School of Public Health on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. This month Bertomen will receive the MPH degree she has long contemplated. She will also be student speaker for the convocation ceremony for ColoradoSPH graduates on May 22. 

“I feel very honored to represent my class and to know that faculty and staff feel that I have truly earned the recognition,” Bertomen said. 

A commitment to public health 

Her path to public health was “never a straight line,” as she puts it, but having committed to the field, Bertomen has made up for lost time. She is a project manager with Otowi Group, a consultant to public health agencies, nonprofits, governments and others, and it’s also where she also completed her MPH practicum and capstone project.  

For her practicum, Bertomen worked on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Strategic Scholars Program, helping nine state, local, territorial and tribal teams efficiently navigate the grant application process, one key part of the program’s overall goal of building resources and capacity in the public health system.  

Her capstone project focused on helping the Arapahoe County Public Health Department identify and strengthen its existing community partnerships and also target opportunities to build new relationships. The work was necessitated by the dissolution of the Tri-County Health Department at the end of 2022  – which had for 75 years existed as an alignment of the public health departments of Arapahoe, Adams, and Douglas counties.  

In the midst of that work, Bertomen fortified her studies with other projects of both personal and professional interest. She noted, for example, that her own experience with mental health challenges “has always been a part of my ‘why’ story” in driving her interest in public health. In 2022, she and colleague Lisa Peters won the Student Health Edu-Thon graduate digital competition, held by the Society for Public Education (SOPHE), with a project that focused on using digital tools to address mental health issues faced by adolescents.  

In addition, Bertomen developed a strong interest in bolstering the public health workforce by helping to support colleagues who are in the early stages of their careers. In September 2022, she and Peters earned the John Muth Award from the Colorado Public Health Association (CPHA) for their work in strengthening the organization’s Emerging Leaders Committee (ELC). Bertomen has served as director of the committee for the past year, succeeding Peters. 

Building the public health workforce 

The ELC work was about far more than checking a box on her resume, Bertomen stressed.  

“I firmly believe in growing the next generation of public health leaders,” she said. “The best thing we can do is to invest in the next generation, train them and pass on historical public health knowledge.”  

To accomplish those goals, the ELC opened up its meetings to anyone interested and focused on actively engaging young public health professionals, Bertomen said. 

“We wanted the committee to be a place where students and early careerists come to learn and grow,” she said. The ELC created regular events to engage young public health professionals with networking events, healthcare mixers, resume workshops, reinvigorated communications, and a recent day-long Health Advocacy and Policy Summit that included support from ColoradoSPH. The event, which aimed to highlight the importance of understanding how legislation affects public health challenges, such as the response to COVID-19, drew 75 attendees on a spring Saturday, Bertomen said. 

Joining the leadership ranks 

She added that her work on the ELC has solidified her career commitment. 

“I love the public health workforce,” Bertomen said. “It is where my passion has led me. I want the workforce to be better so it can help to serve communities better.” 

Two weeks before the convocation ceremony, Bertomen said she was still working on her speech, but said the subject of leadership remains top of mind. 

“I view everyone around me as a leader,” she said. “I would not be the person I am today or be in the place I am today without other incredibly strong leaders surrounding me. It’s the people around me who keep me honest and strong and push me to be a better leader.”