Youth as the Driving Force in the Prevention Movement: The Intern’s Insider

Neha Deshpande (NJ ’10) is currently a Summer Intern with the Office of the Surgeon General at Health and Human Services. A participant in the Summer Institute, she offers reflections on her experience to date. 

Neha Deshpande

Summer Institute in DC is every starry-eyed Truman scholar’s dream. With our new business wardrobes, government ID lanyards, and official-looking legal pads, we come to this city with the hope and optimism to change the world. This summer, our Truman class of 2010 made our way by plane, train, and car to move into George Washington University’s dorms and begin one of the most memorable and unforgettable summers in our careers. We were about to embark on our true story, of 44 strangers who soon became the closest of friends, picked to live and work together, and take one step closer to our futures in public service work.

Like the other Truman scholars, I too, was eager to start my new internship. I was beginning to work at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to explore how our government ensures the health and wellness of the American people. With Harvard Medical School only months away, it was my opportunity to learn firsthand the behind the scenes work that is the spine, so to speak, of our healthcare system.

The Hubert H. Humphrey Building was simple and stoned from the outside. As you entered its main doors, the perched silhouette of the Capitol dome beamed from a distance. From the inside, the marbled halls and midnight blue carpets emitted a sense of diligent patriotism.

A week into my internship, I was given the opportunity to attend a television taping in Washington, DC featuring  U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin. The topic of discussion was the release of the National Prevention Strategy. This first-ever Strategy unites 17 federal agencies with a joint mission of shifting our nation’s system of sick care to one based on wellness and prevention.  

Eager to make an impression, I arrived early, sporting my new “Washington Black” pencil shirt and iron-pressed blouse.  As the Surgeon General was whisked away to the glimmering, brightly lit studio, I was directed to watch the program from the confines of the Green Room.  The cappuccino maker hissed and sputtered as crew members scurried in and out of the room.  As I settled in near a monitor, a poster caught my eye: “Health is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an American one.”

After the show, I decided to stop for a quick lunch before Metro-ing back to the office. Here I was, after the Surgeon General’s taping on America’s health and wellness, sitting in a comfy booth of a chain restaurant. I ordered a delicious grilled chicken sandwich, side of fries, ice-cold soft drink, topped with one of DC’s famous gourmet red velvet cupcakes to finish the meal. I looked around the restaurant at the other hungry customers snacking on pizzas and hamburgers, enjoying midday beers and ice cream sundaes. In the corner of the restaurant was a salad bar, largely abandoned and unexplored.

And somewhere between the honey mustard sauce on my fries and the butter cream icing on my cupcake, I began to wonder.  How do you get people to change their health behavior in meaningful ways? The poster caption was right; health is a bipartisan, universal issue that applies to people of all color and creed. People want to be healthy. So then, why is it so hard for Americans to adopt healthy lifestyle choices?

The importance of prevention is embedded into the daily fabric of our lives as America’s youth. We go to school and study to prevent bad grades. We work and save money to prevent future financial insecurity. In the same sense, we can take simple preventive measures to ensure health and wellness. Many of these policy and infrastructure changes take time and will be more applicable for younger Americans who can really integrate these lifestyles changes, almost in our own DNA.

Unfortunately, society at times, is myopic to the concept of what constitutes healthy living. While exercise and good eating are critical factors, there are other key pieces in the puzzle, as reflected in the National Prevention Strategy. Driving with a seat belt, applying sun block on a hot summer day, or taking the stairs instead of an elevator, are all simple ways to exercise healthy lifestyle choices. There are so many non-clinical strategies that can help us act as promoters and advocates of health living.

If youth take on the responsibility of acting as the trusted advisors, change-agents, and trail-blazers within our families and communities, we can ensure that our increasingly aging nation will also incorporate wellness into daily living. In the long run, prevention will only decrease the burden of Medicare costs for my generation.

Living with the other Truman scholars this summer truly showed me the power of youth. I feel both fortunate and privileged to be a member of such a powerful and influential network of leaders.  It was incredibly moving to see people my age who were so passionate about a cause and determined to fight for the betterment of humanity. We all had our different stories and set of experiences, but somehow one common mission to be the change we saw in our world.

We are the generation that championed the Green Movement.  Like recycling and energy saving, prevention needs to become a social norm.   My generation has the ability and the vitality to sustain this new and emerging prevention movement.   The stakes are high, the benefits are endless.

I pushed my plate of half-eaten fries and cake three inches to the right, just as the waitress returned and asked, “Are you finished miss? Would you like your check?”  I brushed the cupcake crumbs from my pencil skirt and replied with a grin, “I think I’ll try the salad bar first.”

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