When Sammi Jo Kirst walked across the stage at her graduation ceremony in 2012, she proudly wore a mortar board that read: “First class EH!”
Kirst, who was among the first class to graduate in the spring of 2012 from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh with a degree in environmental health, still carries that same sense of pride with her. Now, though, the pride is focused on the career her degree led her to.
Upon graduation from UW Oshkosh, Kirst went on to obtain two jobs she loves: one at the Waupaca County Health Department where she leads health inspections and one as an environmental health specialist in the UW Oshkosh Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) lab.
“What I enjoy most about the major is it’s kind of focused on preventative health. It’s basically about looking at how the environment impacts a person’s health or public health,” said Kirst, who was always interested in science.
Sarah Burmeister, who graduated with Kirst from the UW Oshkosh program, feels similarly and also immediately earned a job in her field of study after graduation. Burmeister currently works for Winnebago County as an environmental health specialist. In her role, she’s responsible for a variety of inspections, managing the rabies program for the county as well as several other public health-connected initiatives that help keep tens of thousands of county residents safe.
“No two days in my job are ever the same,” Burmeister said. “There are so many things that can be done with this career choice, both in the public and private sector.”
Greg Kleinheinz, associate dean and professor in the College of Letters and Science, in many ways is responsible for leading both Kirst and Burmeister toward their majors, both graduates said. The two say Kleinheinz was instrumental in understanding their skill-set and future goals and in helping lead them toward the then-new major at UW Oshkosh.
“With an environmental health degree, students can work in the communities that they live in and they can feel like they are doing good for the community as well,” Kleinheinz said. “I think these jobs offer a direct connection between their professional lives and those of the community members that rely on their expertise to operative their business successfully.”
Kirst said she feels the impact of helping others just about every day.
“I find my job very rewarding. When I’m out on a restaurant inspection, for example, and I notice a violation, I was taught very well how to handle those situations. So, I take the approach of educating the person on the other side. I talk to them about how to correct the problem; I explain the science behind how germs carry.”
While the major is still fairly new on the UW Oshkosh campus, opportunities are abundant. It is a requirement students majoring in environmental health have at least one internship throughout their course of study, said Colleen McDermott, biology and microbiology professor and associate dean in the College of Letters and Science.
“We have been able to provide excellent internship opportunities for all of our environmental health majors in a variety of different types of workplace settings,” McDermott said. “Most go to county health departments and work closely with certified environmental health professionals to learn all aspects of their work in the community. This could include restaurant inspection, hotel/cabin inspections, well inspections, beach water monitoring and analysis or air quality monitoring.”
Kirst and Burmeister say they both had several internship opportunities during their time as UW Oshkosh students. Those internships, both said, likely helped them land a spot in their career of choice.
“The cool thing about UW Oshkosh is the internship opportunities,” Kirst said. “You are exposed to the field before you graduate, which is important. The students get to work in health departments, they get to go out into the field and as a student you are actually writing reports and submitting them so you have that sort of liability and you learn to be accountable. That was huge.”
“Oshkosh’s program has only been around for a few years now and it’s very advanced and innovative,” she said. “As a professional now in the field, I can say that Oshkosh produces great people.”