During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, five diverse alumnae partnered to form the University of Georgia College of Public Health Alumni Workgroup. Together, with support from the college, Lori Elmore (BSEd ’00), Kim Metcalf (BSEH ’93, MS ’96), Erica Parks (MPH ’11), Raegan Tuff (PhD ’09) and Meridith Woodman (BSEd ’96) set out to advance efforts to engage current UGA Public Health students and vast alumni network. The timing of their collaboration also presented a broader opportunity to help shine a light on the valuable contributions of public health and the college to the university and local community.
Three years later, these five women reflect on their achievements together and their hopes for the board, the college, and the public health field.
What does it mean to you to be an alumnus of UGA and the College of Public Health and to support the formation of the CPH Alumni Board?
We are five proud alums of the state’s flagship university and such a diverse college, and though we represent a broad range of public health disciplines, we are connected by our dedication and passion for public health and giving back to our communities.
Alumni boards help to advance the mission, strategic priorities, and programs of UGA schools and colleges. Its members serve as empowered partners to support future leaders to drive positive industry changes. By promoting meaningful networking opportunities, cultivating graduate philanthropy, celebrating traditions and mentoring students, alumni boards help to inspire enthusiasm among alumni and future applicants. We are honored to represent CPH Alumni in all the work we do.
The Alumni Working Group was beginning its work just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Do you remember what your first thoughts were when cases were growing in the U.S.? Did the AWG work take on a new meaning? How?
Watching the cases of COVID-19 rise astronomically across the globe was spine-chilling. The work of the AWG took on new meaning for most of us because it was an opportunity to highlight the value of public health education for preventing and controlling infectious and chronic diseases in populations.
As the only environmental health scientist on the AWG, Kim felt the need to ensure this aspect of public health in our undertakings. Kim is a business owner. The pandemic sparked her interest expanding her training programs and services into more health-based areas.
Meridith is a proud Kappa Delta (KD) alumna at UGA, and she worked closely with KD mid-pandemic for 2020 summer rush, ensuring that girls would be safe and protected, utilizing proper safety protocols and masks, and lead them in the masking up campaign.
Reflecting on whole health impacts due to COVID-19, Erica reflected on how society became very stagnant, isolated, and paranoid. We lost the sense of human interactions. She became more creative and innovative as an entrepreneur. To avoid canceling the 3rd Annual Cocktails & Conversations Event to recognize National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Erica planned her organization Camouflage Me Not’s first hybrid event. To date, it has been the highest-attended annual event because Erica met the people where they were.
It was surprising and scary to experience a pandemic in our lifetime. In a time of social isolation, we looked forward to our many Zoom meetings – an outlet that frankly supported our mental health during uncertainty. Fear paralyzes people, and we need to feel empowered. We believed others in the UGA Public Health community felt the same, so we identified strategies to foster connection between students, faculty, and alumni which we hoped would serve as a positive change.
The murder of George Floyd and the national reckoning that ensued prompted public health organizations to identify racism as a public health crisis. How did this moment impact you? How did this moment impact your work for AWG?
This moment impacted us individually, and we collectively share hope that public health communities continue to work together to challenge and dismantle racist systems and policies that lead to inequities in health.
ERICA: This moment reminded me of how much more work we must do in this Nation to protect people of color. Being Black in America means I’m expected to abide by laws in this country that doesn’t serve or protect me, and that’s a deadly public health problem.
RAEGAN: Identifying racism as a public health problem was vital because racism operates most effectively when it goes unnamed and when its existence is denied. George Floyd’s brutal death.
LORI: I think the murder of George Floyd awakened a sense of “wokeness” in a lot of people that we as public health professionals knew existed for decades before that incident. The moment didn’t change me, but it was interesting to see the majority get involved and draw attention to the injustices that have been occurring dating back to slavery.
KIM: It is truly heartbreaking that Mr. George Floyd had to lose his life to finally see racism accepted as a public health crisis. As a white woman, I have always tried to be an ally to all communities and for me, I reached out to our UGA Alumni Association office to find black-owned businesses that we could promote and support.
MERIDITH: George Floyd’s death was a tragic loss that was the catalyst to identifying racism as a public health crisis in many people’s eyes. As a white woman, I have never been through this racism and only share empathy and love with all impacted. It breaks my heart, and I shared with my two children how, we should stand up to racism and fight for injustice and equality always, now more than ever!
In 2021, UGA commemorated its 60th Anniversary of Desegregation where the university recognized the immeasurable impact of its first Black students – Hamilton Holmes, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Mary Frances Early – for laboring for integration, diversity and inclusion. Their work blazed the trail for public health Black alumni.
In that same year, during National Public Health Week, we launched the Black Alumni Connection Series to honor UGA Public Health changemakers of color through a moderated virtual dialogue for our students and the community. This series continues today as a Chat with a Changemaker and continues to serve as an important touchpoint for engagement for UGA Public Health students and alumni.
How have the last 3 years overall impacted you as a public health professional, and how do you bring this perspective to the Alumni Board?
It became apparent the American public really doesn’t understand public health, and the COVID-19 pandemic was the worst way to introduce people to public health and what this field does to protect communities and promote health. Within the field, COVID-19 challenged the way we operated. We were forced into remote work and virtual learning. Now, we have challenges bringing people back into the office space, and employees are choosing to retire, creating more vacancies in public health.
We realized even more the need to reimagine public health. Our differences are what often make us stronger. Everyone’s opinion should be valued, even if we disagree. There is no more significant time than now to continue to be a beacon of clarity for our communities.
In the past three years, the Alumni Working Group has established the CPH Alumni Board and launched many events to bring together the UGA Public Health student, faculty and alumni community, including two student networking events, multiple alumni meet & greets in Athens and Atlanta, their regular Chat with a Changemaker series, and board members have been very active at College events.
This board purposefully stood up and became innovative during the pandemic – a time when states and cities were downsizing and cutting back on programming and services. Having a voice through the College of Public Health, and reaching the community, educating, protecting, and giving back is our calling and why we are public health servants. We are honored, blessed, and grateful to be members of an inaugural elite group of women breaking ground and making history with our CPH Board. #PublicHealthDawgs
– Lauren Baggett
Posted October 31, 2023.