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Spring 2022
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Public Health in Practice: Student Leaders Promote Service, Practice through Gillings on the Ground

article summary

When it comes to making a difference in local communities, students often lead the way.

Gillings experts and students are engaging in practice that makes a difference locally, nationally and globally.

Putting public health into practice means seizing every opportunity to get out of classrooms and into communities. That’s long been a hallmark of the Gillings School, and one in which students have been engaged.

So, when the Carolina Center for Public Service issued a call for grant proposals in fall 2019, Katherine Gora Combs, then a first-year Master of Public Health (MPH) student and a research assistant for senior administrative leaders, worked with staff and faculty to pull together an application to fund a new disaster response training program at the School.

The grant application was successful. Through almost a year of collaboration across School departments and with community organizations, Gora Combs and the planning partners created a training curriculum leveraging the expertise of a variety of speakers with on-the-ground experience in disaster preparedness and response. Called Gillings on the Ground, the new program was slated for a spring 2020 kickoff — and then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“COVID had a huge impact on our plans — we had to put the program on pause and spent the summer modifying everything and pivoting to an online program,” Gora Combs says. “But it actually worked out better that it was virtual — we were able to expand our pool of speakers and participating organizations to include people who were not just from Orange County. Also, the online flexibility allowed us to expand our reach to more students.”

Gillings on the Ground trained its first cohort in fall 2020 in an all-virtual format. In fall 2021, the program offered a six-week online “mini course” focusing on multiple aspects of disaster response and community engagement, with speakers ranging from county health directors to geospatial mapping analysts to church pastors sharing their experiences. Once completing their training, participants had the opportunity to engage in disaster-related service opportunities with community partners. MPH student Arielle Moss took over the lead role for the spring 2022 program, developing a partnership with the American Red Cross and UNC Wilmington to offer a more hands-on aspect of disaster response that culminated in a one-day emergency shelter simulation in Wilmington led by the Red Cross and New Hanover County Emergency Management. After finishing the course, participants will be able to use a streamlined application process to become Red Cross volunteers.

“When most people think of disaster management, they don’t really think about all the complexities involved."

— Aaron Carpenter

“When most people think of disaster management, they don’t really think about all the complexities involved,” says Aaron Carpenter, a first-year MPH student in the Department of Health Policy and Management who signed up for both the Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 sessions. “It has been really great to hear from people who have been working in the field for decades about their experiences and get their input. They really encourage you to ask questions, and I have gained a lot of knowledge about the ins and outs of disaster preparedness and response.” 

Throughout her years of working with state and local governments on disaster recovery, Amy Belflower Thomas, MHA, MSPH, director of community assessment and strategy at the North Carolina Institute for Public Health and an adjunct professor in the Public Health Leadership Program, found that mobilizing volunteers after a hurricane or flood was not always a smooth process. 

“Volunteers often are not properly or fully trained even though they really want to help — or a lot of volunteers show up immediately after a disaster hits, even though much more support is actually needed during longer-term recovery efforts,” says Belflower Thomas, who worked closely with Gora Combs to develop Gillings on the Ground. “Having a program like this that can train people proactively means they will be fully prepared to help whenever the time comes.”

For Gora Combs, who is now a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology, Gillings on the Ground builds on the School’s longtime focus on service and practice — and is a way to raise awareness about the breadth of public health when it comes to disaster response since the program is open not just to students, but also to interested faculty, staff, alumni and community members. 

“There are a lot of different disaster response training programs across the country, but they don’t focus on response along the lines of public health like ours does,” she says. “While the COVID-19 pandemic has opened people’s eyes to public health throughout the pandemic, public health actually touches every part of health and well-being, including hurricanes, floods and other types of disasters. This program serves as a great addition to the applied training opportunities that Gillings already offers — and it shows those who are not at Gillings how public health is involved in disaster response more broadly, not just in the pandemic.”