On Friday, May 1, Shay Stutts would have crossed the stage of McKenzie Arena to receive her diploma and graduate as a member of the very first group of students to complete the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
She would have, if not for COVID-19, that is.
The irony of the postponement of commencement because of a public health crisis is not lost on her.
“It is kind of ironic that I got my Master’s in Public Health and our graduation is postponed because of a pandemic,” Stutts said, adding that “pandemic” was a topic studied in her very first course.
“I am not disappointed in the decision to postpone graduation,” she explained.
“No one could have predicted the circumstances my peers and I would have to work under to complete our final projects during shelter-at-home orders due to COVID-19. From the experience, we will all come out as resilient students who are capable of facing whatever is thrown at us in the workforce, whether we walked across the stage to receive our diplomas or not.”
Stutts and the other 2020 student pioneers began the MPH program when it launched in fall 2018. The initial class was made up of 21 students celebrated for their diverse backgrounds and interests.
Over the past two years, those pioneers logged many hours outside of the classroom. They’ve partnered with community organizations, including the YMCAs of metropolitan Chattanooga, Siskin Children’s Hospital, LifeSpring Community Health, Erlanger Community Health centers and the American Heart Association of Chattanooga. Students broadened their reach by interning with organizations like the Tennessee Department of Health in Nashville, the University of Tennessee Extension System and the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C.
Most recently, they stepped up to help local responses to COVID-19, volunteering as contact tracers to help identify the spread of exposure, leading social media efforts for the local health department and leading new handwashing initiatives at Erlanger Health System.
“In just two short years, our students have been amazing ambassadors for the program across Hamilton County and Tennessee,” said Mark Stoutenberg, associate professor and MPH program director.
Emma Sampson, who has a background in exercise science, said, “I have always known that I wanted to help people.”
More than a year ago—while still pursuing a master’s degree—Sampson began working with the Hamilton County Coalition, a nonprofit substance abuse prevention and intervention agency. In her role as partnerships for success coordinator, she focuses on prescription drug use and prevention with youth.
“My goal is to continue to work in the prevention and non-profit sector,” Sampson added.
Zachary North, a Clarksville, Tennessee native, graduated from UTC in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. Since returning to UTC, that background has shaped his interest in public health, which include everything from encouraging the protection of green spaces for the health benefits they provide physically and mentally to promoting the benefits of healthy environments that are a little harder to see, like natural barriers that keep harmful pollutants at bay.
“In reality, that is classic public health,” he said.
Currently, North is working with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, helping with its COVID-19 response plan. He answered the crisis hotline and the testing appointment schedule phone, all while finishing his final semester of graduate school.
He has accepted a full-time position as a public health educator and will report for duty at the end of May. Working with the Tennessee Department of Health’s Southeast Regional office in Chattanooga, his job will be to support improving health in surrounding rural counties by focusing on physical activity, nutrition, drug and tobacco use and domestic violence.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is without a doubt the most significant public health event I have experienced in my lifetime,” North said.
He’s journaling about the pandemic. Since April 1, he has kept a daily log with updates on the situation and how it’s affecting the local community, as well as his personal thoughts and what he’s doing to get through each day.
“Years from now,” North said, “I hope to look back on this journal and have a clearer picture of what life was like and how I reacted during this major historical event.”
Even though the 2020 ‘pioneers’ were not able to walk across the stage this May as planned, the Public Health program hosted a special Graduation Celebration on May 12 “to close the chapter on a remarkable cohort of students, Stoutenberg said. “As true ‘pioneers’ these graduates have raised the bar and blazed a trail for future cohorts of UTC MPH students.”