Shewanee Howard-Baptiste started laughing as the question was asked, even reciting the last few words even before they were spoken.
What’s it like to take over a Master of Public Health (MPH) in Chronic Disease Prevention and Control program … ?
“During a global pandemic. That is certainly the million-dollar question,” said Howard-Baptiste, the new MPH interim program director at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“My role is to help others understand what public health is about and all the various facets that public health supports. Whether that’s private, nonprofit, education or clinical, there are so many different industries where people have been doing this public health work.
“I’m excited at the opportunities for our students to be able to demonstrate their skills, their leadership and what they’ve learned in this program to help support our community.”
The leadership position came open in mid-summer when both Mark Stoutenberg, the program’s initial director, and Program Manager Francia Portacio left to pursue other opportunities. Under Stoutenberg’s helm, the MPH program formally started admitting students in the fall of 2018, and that first group graduated this past May.
Shannon Colvin, a clinical assistant professor and board-certified physician assistant, is the new MPH associate program director.
Offered through the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies, the MPH program has received a lot of recent attention due to the work performed by COVID-19 contact tracers during the pandemic. Graduates also can be found in fields such as healthcare policy development, hospital administration, health communication or education and risk management.
Marisa Colston, head of the UTC Department of Health and Human Performance, said Howard-Baptiste and Colvin stepped into critical roles at a crucial time. The MPH program is in the early stages of the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accreditation process, the first time the program has gone through the procedure since its inception. The self-study is due in November with a site visit expected in April 2021.
The two are up for the task, Colston said.
“Shewanee and Shannon work seamlessly together. I think we only had eight in the incoming recruitment cohort when they started, and we’re now over 20. They just took the bull by the horns and ran with it, and it’s just been exceptional watching them work.”
An associate professor in exercise science in the Department of Health and Human Performance, Howard-Baptiste is no stranger to the inner workings of public health. While serving an internship in the UTC Provost’s Office during the 2016-2017 school year, she was involved in building out the master’s in public health program.
“That was the major project that I worked on for that internship. Contacting community partners, interviewing stakeholders, helping to support and design the curriculum and getting support and feedback from faculty,” she recalled. “It was very much a collaborative project along with Dr. Greg Heath, who spearheaded the push to get the MPH on campus long before I got here.”
Colston described Howard-Baptiste as “very poised and confident with good communication skills and strong leadership skills.”
“Shewanee’s background has predominantly been in exercise science, yet she has a solid community health background with her education and with her research and community engagement projects,” Colston said. “That’s precisely what we do here in public health with our concentration focus on chronic disease prevention and control.”
One of her strengths, Howard-Baptiste said, is being able to recognize what is required by everyone involved in the program.
“I see what the faculty need. I see what the students need. I see what the community partners need. I see what prospective students need. I see what the program itself needs,” she said.
“I would say I’m a collaborative person—no matter what kind of title that I’ve had—but certainly having the title and the responsibility, I have an opportunity to make it my own,” she said. “And part of making it my own is really staying true to supporting students first and creating opportunities for our students in our community.”
In announcing the change in leadership in the Master of Public Health program, Colston also acknowledged the work of Stoutenberg and Portacio in pioneering the program.
“I would like to publicly thank Mark and Francia for what they did in building a very strong foundation for the program, a good recruitment process and exceptionally strong community partnerships,” Colston said. “That may very well have been the greatest strength of the program, the strong partnerships that have been developed in the community.”