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Karen Chen

Karen Chen

Class Of 2020

Current Position AmeriCorps Fellow, Cupertino, CA

Alumni Profile: CivicSpark AmeriCorps Fellow, Cupertino, CA

After graduating in 2020, Karen Chen completed a service year at Americorps and then moved to California, where she currently works as a CivicSpark AmeriCorps Fellow at the City of Cupertino’s Sustainability Division.

Could you describe what you do on a day-to-day basis as a Civic Spark AmeriCorps Fellow?

What I love about my job is that there is no standard day but rather project-based work. The projects I am working on right now are wrapping up our Earth and Arbor Day Festival, engaging the public on our Climate Action Plan 2.0, assessing climate vulnerability and making recommendations for climate adaptation, and creating a block program on climate resilience training. During a given day, this could mean research, data analysis, meetings with other divisions, writing curriculum, creating documentation, and sending emails.

How did your interest in this type of work develop?

I have always been interested in public health and environmental issues. I have an environmental studies minor and was starting to get a sense of the overlap between these two interests, but The Environment and Your Health was essential in helping me see how I could combine the two. The summer after my junior year, I had the opportunity to intern at my county’s Department of Public Health Climate Change and Sustainability Program, where I was able to see firsthand the role of public health in climate adaptation.

Upon graduating college, what type of job/experience did you first pursue? 

While taking classes at Bloomberg, I realized how much more enriching my classmates’ educational experiences were because they were able to draw from their professional experiences. I knew my knowledge was mostly academic or based in Baltimore, and I wanted to gain experience working directly with diverse communities. I completed a service year with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), which sent me to five service sites across the U.S. With my team of 6-8 other young adults, I performed tasks such as building pedestrian bridges, sorting and distributing items at a food bank, preparing free tax returns, and tarping roofs after a hurricane. Being challenged in such new ways, I learned a lot about my capacity to try new things, be flexible, and grow in new environments. Engaging in direct service also helped me see the more human side of public health and the details that sometimes get lost when you only learn about issues in class. After completing this program, I applied for the AmeriCorps program I am currently in, which focuses on building capacity in local government.

How did your time at JHU and/or the PHS program prepare you for this role?

The PHS program has been essential in helping me think in an interdisciplinary way. I have used this to understand issues better, and it also helps me find connections between the Sustainability division and other City divisions or departments. Local government is often highly siloed, and coming into the field with interdisciplinary skills has been helpful in finding opportunities for collaboration. Having the opportunity to take classes at Bloomberg also allowed me to hone in on topics I was especially interested in, such as climate change and health communication. I use many of the skills and knowledge gained from these courses in my current role.

Has your job deepened your understanding of the field of public health? In what ways?

I had a fairly deep understanding of the intersections between public health and climate change by the time I started my current position because of my coursework and internships. However, my time in NCCC did deepen my understanding of the field of public health. Many of the projects I worked on did not have immediate connections to public health, but over time I came to see how my work was contributing to communities’ health. For instance, preparing tax returns can often mean families receive several thousand dollars to buy large household goods, invest in their future, and stave off financial insecurity. However, tax preparation fees could reach hundreds of dollars, which most people could not afford. By preparing taxes for free, I was directly contributing to families’ health and access to resources, but this type of work is not what I originally would have considered public health.

Any advice for PHS Studies undergraduates as they navigate how and what to pursue after JHU?

1) It is okay to not know what you want to do! Think of your internships, fellowships, and jobs as a stepping stone. Take them as opportunities to gain skills, build your professional network, and figure out what you like (and don’t like, which is equally important!).

2) AmeriCorps was a great way for me to engage in direct service and gain professional experience. The alumni network is vast and the program has strong name recognition in many fields. However, I want to acknowledge that some AmeriCorps positions pay below a living wage, and AmeriCorps may not be a viable option for everyone.

3) Network! I am still learning how to do this myself, but it doesn’t have to be awkward. I have found that a good start is to keep in touch with people you already know through LinkedIn and get to know people naturally as you meet them. One thing on my To Do list is to tap into the Johns Hopkins alumni network more often and meet fellow alums! If you are in a fraternity or sorority, service organization, or other group on campus, those are also great places to build your network.