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Campus Celebrity: Melissa Habel, C’02

Melissa Habel graduated from Sewanee in 2002 and currently works at the CDC in the Division of STD Prevention. In addition to the many awesome things she does there, she works on the GYT (Get Yourself Tested) campaign, and is currently in charge of spearheading efforts aimed at educating college students about STD and HIV prevention. Keep reading to find out why Melissa is so awesome and what advice she has for Sewanee women looking to jumpstart their own careers!    

Melissa with her college roomate, Amy Johnson Graves (C’02), whom she credits for introducing her to public health

Activities at Sewanee (sorority, clubs, sports, etc):  Sewanee Swimming & Diving, InterSorority Council, Alpha Delta Theta

Current job: I’m a Health Scientist at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in the Division of STD Prevention. I sit in our Social & Behavioral Research & Evaluation Branch which is comprised of psychologists, anthropologists, health communication experts, and public health scientists and advisors. My branch provides expertise on survey and analytic design aimed at assessing and monitoring behaviors, networks and contextual factors that contribute to STD transmission and acquisition; community assessment and engagement strategies; evidence-based communication and social marketing strategies; and the development, evaluation and translation of prevention interventions at the individual, group and structural levels. 

My research projects are primarily focused on the sexual behavior of adolescents/young adults and gay and bisexual men.  We work closely with state and local STD/HIV programs and provide technical assistance when necessary. For example, we might travel to a city and work with the local health department to determine what community and systems-level factors might be causing a dramatic increase in syphilis.  Structural-level research might involve a demonstration project where chlamydia and gonorrhea testing is offered in the pharmacy setting (a non-traditional healthcare setting).  From there we would evaluate feasibility, acceptability, and uptake of the service.

The communication science aspect of my job involves exploring how new media/social media and technology influences behavior and can be used for STD prevention. We also develop national level campaigns such as the GYT: Get Yourself Tested campaign which promotes STD testing and conversations around sexual health to youth under the age of 25. I coordinate the collegiate outreach for the campaign and get to work with the American College Health Association to implement and evaluate the campaign on college and university campuses nationwide.

Our Division also dabbles in global health and I’ve had the opportunity to work on several projects in southern Africa. Last summer, I spent three months in Mozambique providing technical assistance on male circumcision scale up – an HIV prevention strategy.

An example of some of the ads her GYT campaign comes up with

Why is what you do important?  There are 20 million new sexually transmitted infections each year at a cost of $15.6 billion, about half of which occur among 15 – 24 year olds. Specifically, chlamydia and gonorrhea disproportionately affect youth and young adults causing serious health consequences (e.g., PID, cancer) and facilitating the acquisition and transmission of HIV.  Most people won’t know they have an STD because they often do not have symptoms. STDs are more common than you think and they can happen to you. April is National STD Awareness Month. So Know Yourself. Know Your Status. Get Tested.

How did you become interested in your current work? Were you always interested in public health or did you just have one of those “lightbulb” moments where you figured out this is what you want to do? I was always interested in women’s health, but I wasn’t quite sure how to parlay that into a job. The beauty of a liberal arts education is how oblivious you sometimes are to what professions actually exist in the real world.  I was a political science major and had worked for attorneys all through college, so when I couldn’t find a job doing women’s health research, I fell back on my legal experience and took a job with a law firm in Washington, DC.  A year after graduating, my college roommate ended up in public health school at Tulane. She was responsible for introducing me to the world of public health and what I might be able to do with an MPH.  It sounded a lot more fun than billing hours at the law firm.

Melissa at a vagina-themed birthday party her friends threw for her, commemorating her dedication to women’s health

What other jobs or internships did you hold before your current position? Did they help you get your current position? The first two summers in college, I worked at a law firm in Raleigh, NC.  Junior year, I studied abroad in London and interned for a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons.  The summer before my senior year, I received a Tonya Scholarship to intern at the American Enterprise Institute up in Washington, DC.  And my senior year, I worked on Fridays for a local attorney in Sewanee. 

After Sewanee, I worked for three years at law firm in Washington, DC. I was initially hired as a Docketing Assistant and was promoted to a Litigation Paralegal, after one year.  Starting at the bottom was not ideal, but I needed a job and you have to start somewhere.  I was a better paralegal for knowing how the firm’s docketing system worked and understanding how to retrieve old case files because so much of being a paralegal is finding a needle in a haystack. There is no shame in starting at the bottom and working your way up.  No employer wants to hear that you’re too good to be pushing paper, sending faxes, or making photocopies.  Everyone needs to pay their dues.  It’s how you learn a business; it’s how you learn to respect your co-workers and the jobs they do that make the company work, no matter how small or trivial their role may seem.

After three years, I left DC and moved to Atlanta to pursue a Masters of Public Health at Emory University.  When I interviewed for my work study job at the CDC, I asked them why they considered interviewing me given my lack of public health experience.  They told me that they figured I had strong research and organizational skills from my work as a paralegal. Bam! Working for lawyers is great experience even if it’s not what you want to do in the long run. It’s an excellent opportunity to develop your research, organization, editing, and time management skills (and it usually pays well!).

My work study position at CDC then led to a fellowship opportunity within my branch. Fellowships are one of the best avenues to securing an FTE position with the CDC.  I was a fellow for about a year and a half, and then my Branch Chief was able to advocate for creating an FTE position for me which I still had to compete for, but it all worked out.

How did being at Sewanee help you get where you are now? Sewanee’s rigorous academics taught me about hard work and instilled a strong work ethic in me.  I felt extremely prepared when I got to graduate school; it seemed like a breeze compared to Sewanee.

I wouldn’t be working in public health if it weren’t for professors like Julie Berebitsky and Gayle McKeen. They opened my mind and soul to feminism and were wonderful teachers, mentors, and role models. They challenged me to think beyond the box and that it’s okay to raise a little hell – definitely skills needed in my current job! 

And it wasn’t all books.  Being part of the Sewanee swim team was an experience that I will always hold close to my heart. Coach Max Obermiller is a true Sewanee Angel, one of the best men I know, and the reason I came to Sewanee.  He always encouraged me to set goals for myself and dream big.  I still set goals for myself, both professionally and personally.  The ability to imagine change is critical in my job.

Finally, when I was considering colleges, I didn’t have any interest in going to a small school, but I’m so glad that I did. Attending a small liberal arts college like Sewanee gives you the opportunity to be part of a community, to be somebody, to become a leader and thrive. 

Is there anything you would change about your time here at Sewanee? If so, what? If not, why not? I wish that I’d had the guts to take more science and math, but I got scared off in my freshman year. I wasn’t willing to risk any more damage to my GPA (and ego). I stand by my decision, but when I hear our STD Lab give presentations, I definitely wish I had a little more bio under my belt.

If you could offer any advice for women at Sewanee who are deciding what they want to do in the future, what would it be? I cannot stress enough the importance of getting solid work experience while in college.  Think about who you will be competing against when you leave Sewanee. You will have serious competition! Don’t waste your summers – use them to build your resume. And when starting out in the workforce and interacting with your supervisor, your mantra should always be “Boss, how can I make your life easier today?”

After you leave Sewanee, your twenties will be amazing, but extremely challenging.  At times, you will feel lost.  It will be a decade of change. Importantly, you will change.  This is your time to be selfish – to work on you. Fall in love with yourself

Think about: What inspires you? What kind of work are you passionate about? Can you make a living from it? What do you enjoy beyond work? Who do you want to become? How are you going to get there? You don’t have to map out your life plan, as it most definitely will change, but think about where you might want to be at 30 and work toward it.  Setbacks are inevitable, but you’re a Sewanee grad so I have no doubt that you’ll be just fine. YSR! 

Annie is a senior English major and Women's and Gender Studies minor from Macon, GA. 
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