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Benefits of Professional Organization Membership and Participation in National Conferences: Considerations for Students and New Professionals

Authors:
  • Yale School of Public Health

Abstract

The focus of this manuscript is on the next generation of health education professionals and is written by those who are part of that next generation. This manuscript serves as a good reminder to all health educators regarding the importance of professional association membership and attending professional conferences. The co-editors hope that established health education professionals-whether serving as faculty members teaching in professional preparation programs or those practitioners mentoring the next generation-will share this article with students and/ or colleagues regarding the benefits of attending professional conferences and joining professional organizations. Joining professional organizations like the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) and attending professional conferences can provide tremendous career development, skill-building, and professional networking opportunities.
450
The focus of this manuscript is on the next generation
of health education professionals and is written by
those who are part of that next generation. This man-
uscript serves as a good reminder to all health educa-
tors regarding the importance of professional
association membership and attending professional
conferences. The co-editors hope that established
health education professionals—whether serving as
faculty members teaching in professional preparation
programs or those practitioners mentoring the next
generation—will share this article with students and/
or colleagues regarding the benefits of attending pro-
fessional conferences and joining professional organi-
zations. Joining professional organizations like the
Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) and
attending professional conferences can provide tre-
mendous career development, skill-building, and pro-
fessional networking opportunities.
Keywords: professional associations; national con-
ferences; health promotion students; new
professionals; professional preparation
Belonging to professional associations and attend-
ing professional meetings has been promoted as
an important aspect of career development
(Cottrell, Girvan, & McKenzie, 2009). Most health edu-
cators during the course of their professional develop-
ment have heard from faculty, employers, or colleagues
that they should join and obtain the benefits of profes-
sional association membership. The purpose of this
article is to reinforce this message through the experi-
ences of three students who met while delivering a
presentation at the 2009 SOPHE Mid-Year Scientific
Conference in New Orleans. We, the authors, believe it
is our perspective as students and emerging profes-
sionals that make this a unique contribution to the
literature.
We initially met as copresenters of a session at the
2009 SOPHE Mid-Year Scientific Conference (Note: the
terms professional meetings and conferences are used
interchangeably throughout). None of us had met or cor-
responded prior to this session. We quickly discovered
that our current areas of interest and research were
vastly different. They included sexual decision making
Career Development
Benefits of Professional Organization
Membership and Participation in National
Conferences: Considerations for Students
and New Professionals
Holly Mata, MS
Teaniese P. Latham, MPH
Yusuf Ransome, MPH
450
Authors’ Note: The authors collaborated
and contributed equally in the develop-
ment and preparation of this manuscript.
Please address correspondence to Hanna
Cooper, MPH, 1285 Niles Avenue, St. Paul,
MN 55116; e-mail: hncooper@earthlink.net.
Health Promotion Practice
July 2010 Vol. 11, No. 4, 450-453
DOI: 10.1177/1524839910370427
©2010 Society for Public Health Education
Associate Editors, Career Development Department
Randall R. Cottrell, DEd, CHES, is professor, program director,
and graduate program director for the Health Promotion and
Education Program at the University of Cincinnati.
Hanna Cooper, MPH, CPCC, ACC, is a certified professional
coach and public health consultant who works with emerging and
existing leaders to maximize individual, team, and organizational
effectiveness.
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Career Development
Mata et al. / BENEFITS OF PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATION MEMBERSHIP 451
among sexually active adolescent girls (Latham), the
social and psychological factors that may influence risk
and protective factors of HIV infection among Caribbean
immigrants in New York (Ransome), and cultural influ-
ences on health behaviors and substance use in the
U.S.–Mexico border region and innovative research
frameworks to address health disparities (Mata).
Despite our diverse interests, we also discovered numer-
ous points of professional commonality. We shared
common experience as doctoral students with interests
in discovering and implementing community-based
strategies to reduce risky health behaviors (specifi-
cally, harmful substance use and unsafe sexual behav-
ior). It was apparent that our work was connected, and
we quickly became more than a panel of researchers
presenting at a professional meeting; instead we identi-
fied readily as colleagues working together to address
common issues. We all marveled at the ways in which
we could learn from each other’s work and experiences,
and saw value to keeping in touch after the conference
ended and supporting each other as we navigated our
respective graduate programs.
We all felt encouraged by the opportunity we had been
given to learn, share, and grow individually and collec-
tively through attending and presenting at the SOPHE
midyear conference. We also agreed that many of our fel-
low students and colleagues would benefit from the pro-
cess of attending and presenting at professional meetings,
and we made a commitment to pass on the value of our
experience. In this article, we discuss many aspects of our
experiences attending and meeting at the SOPHE mid-
year conference. In addition, we discuss the benefits of
professional meeting attendance in general. These include
faculty involvement and support, experiencing the diver-
sity of the profession, inter- and intradisciplinary collabo-
ration, preparing and giving presentations, attending
sessions and caucuses, committee participation, network-
ing, mentoring, and social events.
Like many SOPHE members we have met, we were
each originally encouraged to join SOPHE by our faculty
mentors and colleagues. Most students have little knowl-
edge of professional organizations and their importance
to career development. It is extremely important for
faculty to encourage and promote professional mem-
bership. Faculty have a unique opportunity to educate
students about professional organizations and facilitate
membership by providing applications, organizing con-
ference travel, and generally serving as role models for
involvement in professional associations. Moreover, all
health educators regardless of the setting in which they
work have a responsibility to mentor others and should
encourage professional organization membership as a
method of professional development.
Joining SOPHE and attending SOPHE conferences
has benefited us in many ways. For example, attending
SOPHE meetings has allowed us access to a much broader
network of health educators and other health profes-
sionals. We were able to meet other graduate students,
clinicians, educators, practitioners, and researchers—
all of whom brought their own unique perspectives,
training, and experiences to the interaction. Meeting
and interacting with a broader array of health education
professionals beyond academia has helped us become
more aware of the breadth and depth of our profession
and the different professional opportunities that are avail-
able as public health educators. Being able to interact
with such a broad group of professionals in our field in
such a concentrated time period such as a SOPHE
meeting is inspiring and invigorating for emerging as
well as established health education professionals.
One of the strengths of the health promotion and
education profession is the value placed on inter- and
intradisciplinary collaboration. As graduate students,
opportunities for collaboration exist not only with students
and faculty members in other academic departments
and universities but also with practitioners, community
agencies, and community members. Attending SOPHE
meetings has helped us better understand how practice
informs our research and how our research can inform
practice. Although we have, of course, discussed this
in our classes, it is hearing about real programs at the
SOPHE meeting sessions that made this interaction
come alive. Conference attendance has enabled us to
share resources and develop relationships with both lay
and professional health educators. Specifically in our
own careers, these opportunities have resulted in the
The Authors
Holly Mata, MS, is a doctoral student at the University of
Texas at El Paso, College of Health Sciences, El Paso, Texas.
Teaniese P. Latham, MPH, is a Lead Health Educator at
Emory University Rollins School of Public Health in
Atlanta, Georgia.
Yusuf Ransome, MPH, is a doctoral student at the
Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health,
New York.
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452 HEALTH PROMOTION PRACTICE / July 2010
implementation of new HIV prevention interventions
and the inclusion of social marketing strategies in our
programs. Attending SOPHE conferences has helped
ground our research in the body of ongoing related
research and practice that happens across communities,
states, and regions. Conference attendance has helped
us learn as much about program implementation chal-
lenges and successes as we have learned about specific
research outcomes. Although the examples presented at
the conferences are specific, the applications of the les-
sons learned are generalizable. This type of learning
and exposure to the practical application of health edu-
cation theory and practice make attending conferences
worthwhile for researchers and practitioners alike.
The opportunity conferences provide to share our
research through poster and oral presentations has also
had a tremendous impact on our skill and confidence
levels. Rising to the challenges of preparing our presen-
tations and translating statistics into meaningful and
audience-friendly interpretations enabled each of us in
our own way to better understand the multidimen-
sional skills and abilities we will need as educators,
researchers, and public health practitioners.
Attending the many and varied sessions at a national
conference is an eye-opening experience. From the plenary
speakers to the individual sessions, there was always some-
thing new to learn. Topics included child and adolescent
health, social marketing, health disparities, teen sexuality,
and many others. Some sessions reinforced topics with
which we were familiar, whereas other sessions exposed
us to completely new areas for consideration. The con-
ference can serve as a good opportunity to interact with
presenters, many of whom are nationally recognized
experts. Attending a SOPHE conference is an excellent
way for students and new professionals to obtain CHES
continuing education credits for a full year at just one
meeting.
We found the caucuses to also be of interest. There are
a number of caucuses where people with like interests
meet to discuss issues. For example, there is a caucus on
social marketing, one on community health, and one
specifically for university faculty. One caucus in which
we all participated was the student/new professional
caucus. Some of the friendships we formed through this
caucus have become an ongoing source of support,
camaraderie, and inspiration in our respective work.
Participating in the numerous committees and admin-
istrative structures of SOPHE is another way for students
to get involved and actually help shape the direction of
the professional association. Students are encouraged to
volunteer for planning committees, membership and
award committees, editorial boards, and special-interest
groups. One student is elected to and actually sits on the
SOPHE Board of Trustees. All of these opportunities
serve to enhance one’s career and overall understanding
of the profession.
By attending professional meetings, we have met and
networked with colleagues and mentors who have played
a critical role in our professional development. Where
else can you meet the authors of your health promotion
textbooks, the developers of the latest technological inno-
vations in our field, and an entire room full of people
sharing your research or practice area, all hoping to learn
from each other? We also have been able to share some of
our own inspirations and ideas to assist other emerging
public health professionals. At a professional meeting,
one of the authors of this article actually connected with
doctoral students from the institution to which he was
planning to apply for doctoral studies. These doctoral
students were able to provide him with insight and
advice in the development of his application. Graduate
students attending conferences like those offered by
SOPHE provide students with access to encouragement,
assistance with doctoral applications, linkages with
established researchers, and networking opportunities.
The pressures and stressors of the daily routine
sometimes make it difficult for students to have quality
time with their mentors while on campus. Through our
conference attendance, each of us has had memorable
opportunities to share working and social time with
our mentors, away from the office or school setting. We
have cherished the chance to reflect on our own work,
share thoughts about innovative strategies highlighted
in sessions, and brainstorm future programs and proj-
ects with our mentors while at the conferences. Of
equal importance, we have also returned from confer-
ences able to mentor others in our field. One of the joys
of working in health education/promotion is what we
think of as the reciprocal relationship of mutual men-
torship. Faculty, practitioners, researchers, and stu-
dents at all levels seem willing to share expertise,
experience, and innovation with each other.
Some of the less formal opportunities that present
themselves at conferences can be very important to
professional development. Recent SOPHE conferences
(Chicago, New Orleans, and most recently Philadelphia)
have included gala social events that coincide with the
opening of poster sessions. Wonderful music, food,
wine, and great conversations await those who partici-
pate. In addition, there are always wellness challenges
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Career Development
Mata et al. / BENEFITS OF PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATION MEMBERSHIP 453
and fitness activities, tours of local landmarks and
interests, and other social events throughout the con-
ference. We’ve found these socials to be a wonderful
time for making new friends, connecting with long-
distance colleagues, and forming new professional rela-
tionships and partnerships.
In thinking about joining professional associations
and conference attendance, we see it as an evolutionary
process (see Figure 1). First, one joins and then begins
attending and presenting at conferences. This partici-
pation can facilitate networking, skill building, collab-
oration, and mentoring. Consequently, conferences
may contribute to increased professional development,
collaboration, and advocacy, which translate into
more effective public health education programs and
initiatives.
In summary, our SOPHE membership and conference
presentation facilitated our professional development
as health educators, researchers, and future academi-
cians. Through networking, service opportunities, and
mentoring, we have been able to fine-tune our research
and advocacy skills. As a profession, public health edu-
cation is diverse, multifaceted, and inclusive; so too
are the SOPHE conferences. Reflecting on our shared
experiences at recent SOPHE conferences, we realized
that we have experienced much more than the benefits
of presenting our own work and being exposed to what
others are sharing.
Although we are at different stages of our careers
and our educational programs, a common thread is the
facilitation of our professional development through
professional organization membership and meeting
attendance. We have grown through our individual and
collective social, educational, personal, and cultural
experiences. Meetings have served as a fertile training
ground for us in that they have fostered open commu-
nication, professional development, and networking
opportunities among a diverse group of interested stu-
dents, researchers, and practitioners. In addition, they
are fun, rewarding, and inspirational. Numerous oppor-
tunities for service, sharing of research, scholarship
programs, and special conference deals and events for
students and new professionals can be found at every
SOPHE annual and midyear meeting.
REFERENCE
Cottrell, R. R., Girvan, J. T., & McKenzie, J. F. (2009). Principles
and foundations of health promotion and education (4th ed.).
San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.
FIGURE 1 Evolution of professional development
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Principles and foundations of health promotion and education
  • R R Cottrell
  • J T Girvan
  • J F Mckenzie
Cottrell, R. R., Girvan, J. T., & McKenzie, J. F. (2009). Principles and foundations of health promotion and education (4th ed.).