Interviewed by Meredith Willis '16 and Aniko Haber ‘16
Sonia Filipczak ’14 recently graduated from the School of Public Health and Health Sciences with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Health Sciences and a minor in biology. Since graduating from UMass Amherst, Sonia has been working as the Director of Community Health Outreach at the Railroad Street Youth Project. Aniko Haber and Meredith Willis, both ’16, recently completed their final semesters as Public Health majors and Public Health Peer Advisors.
We were so excited to chat with Sonia Filipczak and hear all about her current experiences in her role as Director of Community Health Outreach at the Railroad Street Youth Project and also reflect on her memories while enrolled at UMass Amherst.
Sonia initially started at UMass as a transfer Biology major from a community college in her native New Jersey. During her second semester of her junior year, at which time transfer students must have declared their majors, Sonia saw an advertisement for becoming a peer health educator. She wanted to find out more, which is how she discovered the Public Health major. Sonia realized this is what she wanted to do, so she switched to public health on the science track with a collateral field in biology. Sonia said it was such a great experience to be involved in public health because it is much smaller compared to other schools on campus, giving it a great community feel.
Sonia says that the classes in the Public Health major were small, very thorough, and allowed her to be able to work closely with her professors, which was different from her experience as a biology major. Public Health was able to point her in right direction. Sonia always really loved science and found that public health is a means to apply science to the real world. When Sonia sat in on an “Intro to Public Health” class, she noticed the passion involved and realized that she could take the information and work in the community to actually make a difference. Sonia says that "public health is everything around us, which is most important when trying to change the world."
Currently, Sonia works as the director of youth and community health outreach in Berkshire County for the Railroad Street Youth Project. She is the coordinator for all of south Berkshire county for substance abuse where opioid usage is high in the youth populations. The Railroad Street Youth Project is a youth-centered program aimed at removing the generational gap. About twenty years ago, there was a death by substance abuse and the youths came to the town hall meeting and said that they weren’t able to express themselves in what was going on. This began the Railroad Street Youth Project. Something unique about this nonprofit is that it has a youth board, which is awarded $10,000 every fiscal year to lead their own projects and make their own proposals, enabling them to get their say out to the community.
Sonia is hard at work developing a five-year strategic plan centered around how they will combat overdose and substance abuse issues in youth populations. One step in this direction was the formation of the World Café Forum, where the community can come together to talk about tough topics without pressure. The most recent topic this forum tackled was, “What do people in the community do that sends a message that drugs and drinking are okay?” In this setting, youth and the members of the surrounding communities can provide Sonia’s organization with judgement-free feedback.
Recently, Sonia has been examining data showing that substance abuse starts with alcohol consumption at a younger age. Now, she is developing an intervention strategy aimed at reducing drinking and substance abuse. Sonia will continue doing outreach and in the next month will undergo training to become a substance abuse counselor and finally have the opportunity to work with the youths one-on-one.
Sonia was able to find her current position through the help of her undergraduate program advisor, Megan Griffin. Initially, she only went to Megan for advice on class scheduling but Sonia found the Railroad Street Youth Project job posting through a message from Megan. Sonia was skeptical about applying because she thought she was not experienced enough, but still believed she may have a chance, so she went for it. Luckily for Sonia, the executive director of the organization is a UMass Amherst alumna who worked with the center for health promotion, so she knew about the experience Sonia was getting as a peer health educator.
Sonia says her greatest challenge in her current position is that she had to hit the ground running. It has also been a challenge to work her way into the community because it is very small and many of the people residing there have lived there their whole lives. Sonia has had to gain people's trust and let them know that she is there to help. She's also had to adjust to working with youths because they question her: “Why do you care about us? What are you really trying to do?” Thus, it is important for Sonia to keep a positive attitude and use her skills that she acquired at UMass Amherst.
What Sonia has learned about the field of public health from her current position is just how important it is to take a statistics course during your undergraduate career! She has had lots of statistical data to look over and process, so having a background in statistics has been crucial. In the field of public health you must be able to understand how the data works and how to interpret it. Sonia also cited motivational interviewing and active listening as important factors in succeeding in her job. Additional advice that Sonia has for today’s public health students is to never sell yourself short. Sonia uses herself as an example because when she first saw this job posting, she did not think she would be able to get a director position. Sonia definitely recommends to just keep firing out those emails!
When we asked Sonia what her most memorable moment at UMass Amherst was, she said that there were too many. However, she says her most memorable experience was finding the public health program because there was passion in the program and she could feel the need and desire to help others. Through public health, she felt that she had a purpose. The SPHHS was a much smaller home and most of the professors were very friendly and willing to help, which she appreciated, especially as a transfer student. In particular, Sonia wanted to mention microbiology faculty member Jeffrey Blanchard, who was her first mentor at UMass Amherst. Dr. Blanchard was very supportive and one of the first people to introduce her to lab work, and helped her on her way toward a career in public health.
Sonia’s advice for today’s public health students is to have a plan. She says it is possible to get a job in the field without a Master's degree if you aren't interested in graduate school, but she stresses the importance of internships: “I really didn’t think I would end up here. Like I said, I was a biology major and wanted to go to dental school and I couldn’t have been happier that things didn’t work out that way because I love this job and everyone who works here. So, definitely look into doing internships within Public Health because there are so many opportunities, more than just doing social work or counseling or statistics.”
Throughout our conversation, Sonia expressed her sincere gratitude for being able to come back to Massachusetts. “I couldn’t ask to be in a better place for Public Health.”
Sonia says that if anyone is interested in applying to the Railroad Street Youth Project, the organization is currently looking to fill two positions. She recommends checking out the Railroad Street Youth Project website, where positions are posted. If anyone is interested in working with youths and substance abuse, they should definitely apply!