Sara Olsen
Sara Olsen, MPH Candidate

Sara Olsen received her MPH in Physical Activty at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. She is currently a behavioral and community health PhD student (UMD SPH) and a full-time Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Officer in the Navy and is a volunteer and board member of the organization Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance. This interview was conducted when she was in the MPH program. 

In one sentence, what is public health to you?

Public health is the unique field dedicated to disease prevention and health promotion through a wide variety of mechanisms at all socio-ecological levels.

What inspired you to study public health?  

I cofounded a charity aimed at increasing inclusion of adaptive athletes in sport and fitness. Understanding, from a more academic sense, the layered effects of political, social, community, inter-/intrapersonal, and medical influences on the overall wellness of this community was critical, in my opinion, to furthering the charity’s mission.

What is your current employment or volunteer position? Please give a brief description of the organization and your responsibilities. 

My current full time employment is in uniform. I am an EOD Officer in the Navy stationed on staff at the Inter-American Defense College.

As a volunteer, I sit on the Board and run day-to-day operations of Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance. We are the only US 501c3 nonprofit of its kind - building a stronger community for adaptive athletes and their coaches. We help athletes with permanent needs participate in life-changing fitness opportunities through education, grants, and competition.

Our education arm teaches coaches, DPTs, Rec Therapists, OTs, personal trainers, and others to assess, program, and include adaptive athletes in sports and fitness through our Seminar program.

We believe the fastest way to make inclusion ubiquitous is to highlight the capabilities of the athletes themselves. We do this through grants. Our grants program provides financial support to adaptive athletes to compete or to become coaches/mentors themselves.

Locally, we host the WWG. It is the only all-adaptive CrossFit-based competition that we know of. It has grown from 24 athletes in 2012 to 89 registered athletes from 7 countries in the fall of 2015.

Through a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs, we are currently offering 6 month scholarships at one of ten of our 37 Alliance Gyms to wounded, ill, or injured active, reserve, separated, or retired service members. Part of this pilot program will be studying the effect of community-based physical activity on wounded veterans’ physical activity affect and perceptions of quality of life.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

As far as a specific health concern, I don’t think there is a single one that outweighs all others. Often addressing health concerns from the strategic level means assessing competing priorities: government roles and individual freedoms; mental and physical health; large populations and remote communities with unique concerns; national and global health; aging populations and younger cultures; or immediate concerns and long-term social change to enable healthier societies. The field as a whole learns to balance PH resources (including number of professionals), including the balance of PH strategies, such as research, outreach/education, policy influence, and interventions.

However, if I were to pick a single challenge the field is facing across health concerns and strategies, I would say communication. In my first year in this program, one thing that stands out to me is the challenge across the several disciplines in the field to effectively communicate risk to the general population, implication of research to policy makers, economical benefit of prevention to resource funders, etc. I think as up and coming PH professionals, we need to learn to speak in the jargon of the media, politicians, and, of course, the communities we wish to impact. It will become necessary to be innovative in the way we communicate the findings and successes within the field to maximize impact, further health promotion, and reduction of health inequities, as well as to generate interest in continued resource allocation to PH.

Why did you choose public health at UMD?

With my interest in Physical Activity, seeing the Department of Kinesiology prominently featured within the School of Public Health made UMD an easy choice.

What has been your favorite course taken as a public health student so far? Why?

I’ve only taken 6 classes so far, but I would say HLTH665. Dr. Howard created an open learning environment that resulted in dialogue and discussion. I did not go into the course with any expectations but it was refreshingly challenging and I learned a lot.

How has your degree program at UMD’s School of Public Health shaped your career goals?

It has actually helped me create professional goals related to PH. Because I started the program to support the charity, I did not tie the education I was to receive to my career. The information, however, has been invigorating and recent opportunities to be more involved in studies has gotten me excited about pursuing PH beyond my volunteer role.

What person or experience had the greatest impact on you during your degree program?

Although interaction with certain professors had been transformative in nature, the greatest impact has probably come from other students. I am so impressed with the talent, engagement, and variety of interests of other students in the MPH and PhD programs. I have learned as much from them as from formal education.