Former emergency department nurse looks to career in public health to broaden impact

Jesse Alook looks forward to working collaboratively with communities to improve Indigenous health via changes to programs and policies.

Sasha Roeder-Mah - 01 June 2022

Jesse Alook, ’19 BScN, began his health career as a registered nurse in a busy urban emergency department. But it wasn’t long before he realized that for him, the future lay in public health, where he could impact policy in ways that might help far more than the three to five patients he worked with per day at the hospital.

Alook, soon to graduate from the University of Alberta with a master’s of public health in health policy and management, was president of the Indigenous Graduate Students Association and recently received the Robert Wood Johnson Award, established in 1956 by Johnson & Johnson Medical Products Inc. The award recognizes graduate students in health administration programs in Canada who are most likely to make a valuable contribution to health services management.

We spoke to Alook — who recently completed a practicum project with the Government of British Columbia's Division of Indigenous Health and Reconciliation —  about his time as a U of A student, his plans for the future, and what it means to have been recognized with this award.

What inspired you to pursue a career in health?

It’s tough to identify one event that drew me to nursing or public health. At the end of the day, I knew I wanted to help people in one way or another. Although the method has changed a bit, the impact still means the world to me.

Two major ideals brought me to public health. First, it tends to be preventive and has an upstream approach to health care. Working as a nurse in the emergency department, I saw the worst downstream effects of treating diseases after they have already progressed to an emergent point. Being in public health allows me to set changes in programs and policy that will have generational effects on the population they serve. Second, I’m drawn to the opportunity to impact a larger population rather than the handful of patients that I interacted with each day as a bedside nurse. 

What are your fondest memories from the School of Public Health?

I would have to say that the fondest memories I have are moments when I saw my virtual classmates in person for the first time. From our first Health Policy and Management (HPM) meet in Quad, to our first winter skate at Hawrelak Park — the experiences of meeting face to face with professors, students and the community meant a lot more to me than I had originally expected.

How much did pursuing your master’s during the pandemic impact your experience?

As it did for many others, the pandemic had both positive and negative impacts on my experience. I certainly missed out on the personal interactions that you would receive in the classroom, but I didn’t miss commuting to campus five days a week. With “zoomiversity,” you can get exceptional work done faster than ever before in some areas, but there is some work that needs to be done in person.  

What are some of the biggest non-academic lessons you learned during your master’s?

With all of the working and studying remotely, I learned that having a barrier between work mode and relax mode is necessary for my mental health. I found that having a workspace outside of my bedroom is very beneficial for productivity and a work-life balance. I also got a lot better at time management. There was one semester where I was the lead/co-chair of three committees or groups, all while taking a five-class course load. I quickly had to learn how to properly use a calendar while prioritizing and delegating tasks where I could.

Did you have any mentors or favourite instructors who supported you along the way?

Some of my favourite instructors would have to be Ruth Wolfe, Susan Chatwood, Erin Pollock and my advisor Mike Paulden. These instructors were very helpful, very responsive to emails, and were always willing to support and lend a helping hand. I received some excellent career advice and support from them, and was able to work as a teaching assistant with Ruth, Susan and Mike.

What does it mean to you to win the Robert Wood Johnson Award?

The Robert Wood Johnson Award is the culmination of all my hard work throughout the degree. Being chosen by the HPM faculty is quite the amazing compliment. I only hope that I am able to impact others to the same extent that these professors impacted me.

What comes next in your career path? 

I have mostly been looking for public health positions in the field of Indigenous health. I want to end up in a leadership position where I can work with Indigenous Peoples around the province and the country. Having grown up as a member of Bigstone Cree Nation, I saw firsthand the health inequities that occur in rural Northern Alberta in Indigenous communities. I also saw an ever-loving community of people that raised me to become the community-driven, humble, award-winning man that I am today. I want to give back to them as best I can — and that includes through my career path in nursing and public health.

What would you say to other Indigenous students who are considering a path in the health professions?

One thing I would like to share is that once you have a strong support system (which I am lucky to have), you can do anything you set your mind to. Take the time to develop a strong rapport with your classmates, professors and elders. The people you surround yourself with — no matter your relationship with them — will influence you immensely. There is no such thing as wasted time when it comes to developing connections with others.