When Katherina Tsai first heard about Public Health AmeriCorps at Wake Forest University, she knew she wanted to be involved.
"For the next year, I will be working with the Forsyth County Public Health Department in hopes to promote community events and improve access to healthcare resources to underserved populations in Winston-Salem," Tsai says.
Since fall, 15 members of the Wake Forest University community have had a chance to explore public health issues in a real-world context as part of Public Health AmeriCorps. The federally-funded program is designed to, as Wake Forest puts it, “improve lives, strengthen communities and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.”
Last spring, Wake Forest was awarded a grant by AmeriCorp and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to serve as a host site for Public Health AmeriCorps, with a goal of training the next generation of public health leaders.
People are also reading…
Wake Forest's Office of Civic & Community Engagement (OCCE) applied for the grant in fall of 2021 and was notified of the award late last March. Wake Forest and Appalachian State University were the only higher education institutions in North Carolina to receive funds. Overall, state and local organizations received more than 80 grant awards, totaling more than $60 million.
"It's a really exciting program," says Marianne Magjuka, executive director of the OCCE and assistant dean of students. "Students are able to gain first-hand experience in public health fields and deepen their understanding... it's something really valuable to them.
"It's also an opportunity for students to get off campus and be part of the community."
The 15 participants at Wake Forest – 14 undergraduates and one graduate student – are based at the university's partner sites.
Each participant will complete 900 hours of service at a mobile health clinic, Magjuka says, serving individuals in areas the CDC has labeled as “highest vulnerability.”
Working with these groups will enable the students to make an impact on the community, she says, while also helping the students “reflect on their career aspirations and determine whether they want to enter into a life of service.”
The program requires participants – who already have very busy schedules – to devote a lot of time.
"It is definitely quite an undertaking in addition to their course loads," Magjuka says, "It's definitely been a challenge."
Some students began their work back in August, while others started as recently as October.
Three students decided early in the planning stages that they would not be able to make the time commitment work, Magjuka says, but they were replaced, and the program is fully enrolled.
Tsai, who is from Raleigh, went to the UNC School of the Arts for high school, studying piano. When it was time to decide on a college, Wake Forest was her top choice.
"One of my favorite things about Wake is its pro humanitate ('for humanity') motto. We are not getting educated just to land a job after graduation, but to make an impact on the people we interact with, and the local community which we are a part of... I wanted a school that embodied service to others, with a great education.
"I loved how they built pro humanitate into school traditions; personally, I have been involved in both Hit the Bricks and Wake N' Shake, which are sister events that fundraise for the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund."
Among the other students involved in the project is Emily Reeves, a Florida native who has lived in Winston-Salem for the past three years and developed strong bonds to the community in that time.
"I have a passion for biochemical sciences, medicine, and healthcare," she says. "This opportunity with Public Health AmeriCorps has allowed me to gain insight into the public health system in Forsyth County, and I've had the opportunity to improve the education and access to health care in various communities around Winston-Salem.
"It's been really rewarding for me."
For Public Health AmeriCorps, she is working with Cancer Services, helping cancer patients in treatment and survivors with issues relating to financial assistance, emotional support and well-being.
"I get to actually work with the patients, and not always in a clinical setting," she says. "It's more about looking at the patients as a whole human and getting that personal interaction."
She recalls a recent incident where a patient who was newly diagnosed was understandably nervous and upset, including concerns about hair loss from chemotherapy. They worked to help her get complimentary wigs and scarves and set up financial support.
"It was good to see how her whole day turned around," Reeves says.
In December, Reeves was about a third of the way through her service hours and still working out how to balance AmeriCorps responsibilities and her school workload. She plans to catch up on her time requirements this summer, and has already talked with other students interested in joining the program about time management strategies and the benefits the program offers.
"This opportunity has really helped me get a more real-world experience with public health," she says. "It's certainly a good way to give back to the community."
In addition to positive feedback from the students, the response from the partner sites has been positive. "We've heard from our partners that having the students there has helped," Magjuka says. "We have already heard from additional community partners who want to join and be sites... It's our intention to continue the program into the future."
The sites often need support, and in addition to their own work, the students who participate also sometimes help to recruit additional volunteers.
"It's really a wonderful way to make a local impact and to connect students to what is happening in our community," Magjuka adds. "It's a really innovative and exciting partnership, and I'm glad we're a part of it."