Changing Careers: The Path from Sommelier to Public Health

Public health as a career option has been thrust into limelight over the last year and half because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. But for many people, like recent UVM Master of Public Health alumni, Emily Belanger, making the transition to a position in public health seemed like a leap. Today, after successfully completing her master’s degree in public health, Belanger wants anyone who is thinking of switching careers to know that their experience outside of public health, matters.

As an undergraduate student in Amherst College, Belanger credits her advisor who focused his research on the history of science as one of the reasons she wanted to explore the foundations and beginnings of public health. Through research for Belanger’s senior thesis, the importance of public health was something that stuck with her.

Making Connections in Public Health

In 2017, Belanger began working at Cork Wine Bar and Market of Stowe as the Assistant Wine Director. She quickly discovered that the interdisciplinary nature of wine, which is a combination of science and culture, would continue to feed her interest in public health. The flexibility of her position at Cork allowed her to add the online master’s degree program to her already full plate. 

“The nature of an online program provides the coursework and expectations very clearly each week,” said Belanger. “Knowing what I had to do each week, knowing the obligations of my program well in advance allowed me to block out days from the restaurant when I need to focus on my coursework.”

When she started her first class in UVM’s 42-credit program, she felt a bit intimidated being a sommelier coming into a public health program. “A lot of my classmates had an MD or was a registered nurse or had been working in public health; but I quickly learned that there is quite a bit of diversity of backgrounds in the program, and that I have unique experiences that are assets to the program and to public health.”

Belanger knew right away that she wanted to add to her public health experience, so with the help of MPH Career Coach Heather Palow, she began an internship at First House through NEK Prosper. And as time went on, more opportunities opened up for Belanger, thanks in part to her position at the wine bar and willingness to share with customers her passion for public health. 

Seeing Through the Lense of Public Health

Public health had grabbed Belanger’s interest right from the beginning. Once she dove into the online program, she realized that she could dig deeper into the social determinates of health and understand what causes populations to be healthy or not. 

“Through public health, you can see that housing is health, that racial justice is health, that environmental justice is health, and you come to recognize that if we don’t take action, some of us will be okay, but we also need to consider how things are going to affect the most vulnerable among us.” 

UVM’s MPH program focuses on environmental public health, epidemiology, quantitative public health sciences, health policy, leadership, and advocacy. In addition, faculty highlight the need for preventative care and the need for communities to be set up so that all people can achieve good health. These focus areas resonated with Belanger and made her feel more connected to her home in Vermont. 

“I knew that I would be talking to and working with people who knew the public health landscape of Vermont. And it’s where I live and where I want to live in the future. I was looking for a program that can focus on the experiences that I have here as well as across the country. I want to be a Vermonter and get my education here.”