Dating back to her days as a graduate student at Miami University of Ohio, Dawn Ford has been going to the Bahamas for fieldwork.
Ford, an assistant professor in the Master of Public Health program in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Health and Human Performance department and the University’s chief epidemiologist, has led trips to the Bahamas for more than 25 years.
“My advisor, who I’m still in contact with, says Bahamas is in my blood,” Ford said. “When I first went, I had never flown in an airplane, never traveled internationally, so it was a lot of firsts.
“The island that we go to is a remote family island. It’s not developed. They have an airport and a couple of stores, but otherwise, it’s like going back in time.”
Following final exams, Ford led her largest group to that locale—San Salvador Island, a town with a little more than 900 people. She was accompanied by 28 others, including Honors College undergraduates, a biology student and—for the first time—students from the UTC MPH program.
“The past two years, I’ve done a lot of public health work, and that made me think more about how to help the people of San Salvador,” she said. “They have access to few resources. There’s only one health clinic on the island. There’s not a doctor on the island, and they suffer from the same kind of diseases that Americans do: Obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol.”
The eight MPH students, also accompanied on the trip by MPH program manager Emma Sampson, became the first health-focused group to work at the Gerace Research Centre field station.
Ford noted that the Division of Diversity and Engagement provided scholarship assistance to MPH students who applied. The HHP program also offered support.
“Because I love the Bahamas so much, I wanted to give back to the people there. Involving public health students was a way I could do that,” Ford said.
Taylor Teasley jumped at the opportunity to accompany Ford to San Salvador Island.
“I look up to Dr. Ford; she’s not only passionate about teaching students, but she is so passionate about the people and what she does down in the Bahamas,” Teasley said. “She talks about it with so much love and compassion.
“When we got down there, everybody knew her on a first-name basis; everybody was so excited and nice. Dr. Troy (Dexter), who is the director at the Gerace Research Center, was open arms to us and so were the rest of the villagers. It was such an honor to share this experience with Dr. Ford.”
A native of Knoxville, Teasley said part of the reason for the MPH presence was to talk to the islanders about healthy eating habits. She noted that much of the food they have access to is processed or fried, “and the healthy foods are extremely expensive. For example, just one apple was 91 cents.”
So the MPH group hosted a community event called Planting for Prevention to talk about healthy living.
“The Planting for Prevention program focused on disease prevention, with the main focus on Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes,” she said. “It was an overall idea of what can happen from not eating healthy, from not working out regularly, from not just living a healthy life.”
It’s one thing to hold an event; it’s another to get a positive response. They were overwhelmed by the numbers.
It ended up being 83 people. Remember, the island has only around 900 residents.
“Of all the times that Dr. Ford went down there, she said she had never seen anything like it,” Teasley said. “The councilman came. The Red Cross came. It was honestly amazing.
“Seeing them look at us, seeing them take in what we were saying, seeing them writing notes down and interacting with us, they want something to change. They want to be a part of change.”
Teasley, who received a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from UTC in 2021, said the whole experience is precisely what public health is all about.
“I’m a strong believer in ‘It takes a village,’ and I feel the whole village came out for us that night,” she said. “It made so many of us even more excited to keep going down there because there is opportunity for change on the island. They want it to happen.”
Emory Evans’ path to the Bahamas differed from others in the traveling party.
She returned to college a dozen years after receiving her undergraduate degree, having earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Middle Tennessee State University in 2008.
She had worked desk jobs and in startup companies, been involved in the music industry in Nashville and had done extensive traveling.
However, one thing she had never done was get up in front of a classroom. Then came San Salvador Island.
The island has two schools, a primary school (for students in grades one through six) and a high school (grades seven through 12).
Evans and the MPH students did educational outreach on healthy living at the primary school, talking about nutrition and exercise to fourth, fifth and sixth graders. They also led an activity where the children planted seeds in pots and brought them home.
“I was super nervous,” said Evans, who helped teach the sixth graders. “All I could think about was what I was like when I was in sixth grade, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to teach me.’ Man, I was just worried about trying to be cool in sixth grade and I was definitely not wanting to listen to the teacher.
“But as soon as we walked in, the entire class stood up and gave us the warmest welcome. It immediately put me at ease and I just got really excited about it.”
Evans said she was pleasantly surprised to find that the kids were well-informed about nutrition.
“We were extremely interactive with the kids,” she said. “When we went out and did the planting exercise outside, they were super excited to learn.
“There’s a group of us that want to go back next year, and I would love to implement more of that—and potentially go to the high school as well to expand on the nutrition aspect.”
Last summer, Evans did a water assessment in the Dominican Republic—one of two public health experiences necessary to fulfill MPH graduate requirements.
Going to San Salvador Island provided another opportunity.
“I found myself constantly writing about water access and wastewater management this past fall and spring semester,” she said, “so I figured, ‘Hey, while we’re down there, why not order some tests?’
“So me and a few of the other girls within the graduate program hiked around and did some samplings of the inner ponds within the island.”
As a result, Jillian Saraney can now say she willingly went down a well to test water samples as part of her first overseas MPH excursion.
Saraney, who grew up in Murphy, North Carolina, had never been involved in taking samples. When the group needed a volunteer to climb into a well, she literally jumped at the chance.
“I got to get down into that well and get that water,” she said, laughing as she told the story. “It was a fun experience and I got out of my comfort zone. I was a little bit worried. What if I fall in the well? But I said, ‘I’m going in there. It’s for the greater good.’ And I jumped in.”
As the group later discovered, the water was full of bacteria.
“It was a lot of fun for me making the samples and then going back and analyzing the water,” Saraney said, “but we were all shocked. We didn’t expect that it was going to contain E. coli because that well was on the Research Institute campus.”
Saraney, who has a 2021 bachelor’s degree in biology from UTC, had spent the better part of her time in the MPH program doing on-campus COVID-19 education.
Getting the chance to educate the people of San Salvador Island about health education made her first international experience a memorable one.
“When we went to San Salvador, I had never experienced education in a way where the people are so … the only word I can think of is hungry,” she said. “They’re so hungry for new information and they just want to hear what you’re saying.
“They wanted to talk to us. They wanted to know what we had to say. They wanted to better their own lives.”