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Chico State

5 Questions with Community Health Director and Distinguished Alumna Monica Soderstrom

Monica Soderstrom stands behind a waist-high brick wall with a brick building behind her.
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Monica Soderstrom, RN, PHN, the Division Director, Community Health for Butte County Public Health, is this year’s Distinguished Alumni representing the College of Natural Sciences. Soderstrom is photographed near Holt Hall on Wednesday, March 9, 2022 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/Chico State)

The first nursing job Monica Soderstom (Nursing, ’85) had after graduating from Chico State was a three-month stint in Haiti. Working in a medical clinic in downtown Port au Prince, she also spent time in an orphanage for children and worked in a nursery for very ill children and infants and a home for the sick and dying.

Doing what she can in her own corner of the world—wherever that is—has been the hallmark of Soderstrom’s career. Born and raised in Chico, public health has always been at the core of her work. She has worked for both Enloe Medical Center and Butte County Public Health, guiding the community through several major crises including the Oroville Dam spillway failure, the Camp Fire, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently the community health director for Butte County Public Health, she heads the county’s community health division where she has overseen countywide nursing programs and coalitions since 2015. In March 2021, Assemblyman James Gallagher presented Soderstrom with the California Legislature Woman of the Year award, and this month, she will be honored as Chico State’s 2022 Distinguished Alumna of the College of Natural Sciences.

Soderstrom lives in Chico with her husband, Ted. They have two children.

What’s your advice for students who want to become active in their communities?

To start while they’re in school—it’s a lifestyle. I became active while I was in high school, continued while I was in college, and have always wrapped that up into whatever job I had or if I was even unemployed. During my maternity leave, I continued to volunteer. Find something that really speaks to you and is your passion and make time for that in your life. Whether it’s your personal or professional life, it all goes together really well. Look for those opportunities and when they come along, don’t be afraid to try something new. If you’re not being challenged, if things seem too easy, then you’re not growing.

And with nursing specifically, I spoke to Chico State students in a leadership class years ago, and I encouraged them all to do some sort of volunteer nursing service, whether it was at the Red Cross or overseas. I said, “It will change your life. It will change your career and inspire you—in whatever field of nursing you go into.”

Why nursing in college and why public health as a career?

A high school field trip to UC Davis Medical Center sparked an interest in me for nursing. Because I always thought about working with children, I thought I’d be a pediatric nurse or a school nurse. So when I went to nursing school, I started my nursing career in pediatrics, working at Enloe Medical Center in the pediatric unit for three years, but working in pediatrics in the mid-80s, we started seeing drug-exposed infants for the first time in the hospital. I thought, “I’m on the wrong side of the equation here,” and decided I wanted to get on the prevention side of things. I applied to Butte County Public Health and got a job and started right away working in our community, especially with families who were experiencing difficulties, like poverty and addiction. What drives me now is that public health lens on health care prevention, community mobilization, and community partnerships.

What role does leadership play in your life?

It’s trying to keep abreast of the programs that I oversee but also of the needs of our staff, determining what will help inspire them to want to do their job, to be the best they can be. Throughout all of the disasters we’ve responded to over the last five years in Butte County, it’s important for the staff to trust that what I’m asking of them is what I would do. I’m really a leader that will roll up my sleeves and work right alongside my nurses—I believe in them, and I want them to know that we do this as a team. I was an athlete in high school and when I look at the work we do, everybody has different skills, but the team works together. You need the point guard and you also need the center—you need everybody on the team. I think the most fun part of being involved in leadership is actually being able to help build the team that works together to answer a need in our community.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Enjoy the time you have while you’re in school and try not to be so serious with school. Allow that time to be one of balancing work and school with fun. I think sometimes we don’t realize that those four or five years when you’re in college are the times to experience so many new things. And before you get into the full-time, 40-hour-week grind of work, explore different things. I’d say make enough time to have fun and explore new things. It’s not like I didn’t have fun, but when I look back, I probably could have given myself a little more fun time.

How do you “Do and Dare?”

My whole career has been about developing relationships with other nonprofit agencies, with hospital groups, with providers, and finding a way we can all create a social network together that helps improve and lift our whole community’s health and well-being. For me, the do and dare is always looking for the next project or the next relationship. I’m really a project person and I love when there’s a need to say, “Well, let’s figure this out, how can we do that, who can we partner with to make a difference?” You can’t do that if you don’t build relationships. The dare is asking, “Not only how can we fix that, but also how can we look beyond ourselves to bring more people in as partners so we can do it together?”