At the close of every semester, the USF College of Public Health honors its graduates before they embark on their professional endeavors. Students file the stresses of their final semesters in “the past” and prepare themselves for their individual paths – graduate programs, fellowships, careers – whatever the future may hold!
On Friday, Dec. 12, students, staff, family, friends and faculty alike flooded COPH’s Sam Bell III Auditorium to reflect on the achievements from their college careers.
“You are our ambassadors in Florida, nationwide and around the world,” said Dr. Kay Perrin, director of undergraduate studies in the COPH. “You should be proud of your accomplishments!”
And indeed they should.
The fall class of 2014 officially joined the 26% of the U.S. population who hold college degrees, and it even managed to break a handful of records along the way. The semester not only boasted the largest graduating class thus far with an astounding 153 undergraduates, but also finished with an overall GPA of 3.04, the highest of any graduating class so far.
“Our favorite time of the year is when you arrive,” said Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of COPH. “Our second favorite time of the year is today – when we see you about to graduate and enter the field as public health professionals.”
Abu-Sayeef Mirza knows only too well the sense of relief graduation holds. Last summer, he became the first person to earn an MPH before completing his undergraduate degree. He now is a third-year student across the street from COPH at the Morsani College of Medicine.
“The value of your education will truly manifest when you apply what you learned in the real world,” said Mirza. “The time and energy you put into this education deserves to be honored and respected.”
“Knowledge must be accompanied by action,” he continued, giving the audience some of the same advice he gives his patients. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Whether it is to organize a nonprofit, join an NGO, start up a new business, or enter the health care field at any level from a nurse to physician, you must use your past experiences to build a better future.”
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All graduates have their own stories, their own plans and their own paths. They have their individual ideas of what their degrees can help them achieve and help them do in the world. To the newly-graduated Angelica Williams, one of the first two to graduate with the new infection control concentration, public health offers an opportunity to improve our communities on a multitude of levels.
“The public health field as a whole provides us with the tools and resources to prevent the spread, and reach the source, of countless infectious diseases,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to extend and improve the quality of lives in our communities.”
Before making the move to Tampa, Williams earned her bachelor’s degree in biological science at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The Louisiana native then came to COPH to pursue her long-time interest in infectious disease prevention.
“While searching for suitable graduate programs, my main concern was finding a program that catered to my specific interests and goals yet exposed me to a variety of disciplines within public health. I did not want to feel limited,” said Williams. “Once I saw that USF provided over 25 different concentrations and was the only college of public health that I looked into that offered the infection control concentration, I knew it was the program for me.”
Like many in the public health field, Williams wants to put her practice and passion to work helping populations in need, specifically those affected by HIV/AIDS.
“HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention has always been one of my passions,” Williams said. “If I had one wish, I would wish that HIV/AIDS be eradicated. Being someone who has personally been affected by losing a loved one to HIV/AIDS, I understand the affects that this disease has on not only those infected, but their families and loved ones, as well.”
In addition to her master of public health degree, Williams is certified in public health via the National Board of Public Health Examiners. During her time with the university, she was able to complete not one, but two separate field experiences. She first interned with the Epidemiology Department at the Florida Department of Health in Broward County and then in the Infection Control Department at Broward Health Medical Center.
“My time at USF was challenging, yet extremely rewarding. It helped me grow as a public health professional and strengthened my knowledge and skills,” said Williams.
During her final semester, Williams was offered a full-time position at the Florida Department of Health in Broward County. Although balancing her new full-time job, completing her field experience and finishing her course work was a little tricky, Williams got through it by putting her time management and organizational skills to use. “My advisor, Dr. Donna Haiduven, was also extremely helpful throughout this process,” Williams said. “She helped keep me on track and provided me with advice and needed resources throughout my entire graduate career.”
Some graduates probably plan to take a break from the textbooks post-graduation, but not Williams. “Now that I have completed my MPH,” she said, “I plan to continue working and begin taking prerequisite courses to apply to nursing school.” Williams also plans to complete an accelerated BSN program with the ultimate goal of landing her dream job as an infection control practitioner.
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Another stand-out of the graduating class is Mary Bigelow. Winner of the King O’Neal Scholar Award, Bigelow exemplifies the rewards of hard work and perseverance.
“I was determined to show my children how important education is and how you can do anything you put your mind to,” said Bigelow, a mother of two. Bigelow says juggling the needs of her 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter with her school demands was a challenge, but her grades certainly didn’t suffer. Even while performing a balancing act with her parental duties and student responsibilities, she became the first BSPH student to graduate with a 4.0 GPA. She even found time to volunteer with the Red Cross and participate with Community Emergency Response Team, Phi Kappa Phi and the Undergraduate Public Health Student Association.
The flexible course schedules and post-graduation employment opportunities made COPH an obvious choice for Bigelow.
“It allows individuals with other demands on their time to receive an education in a field that will improve the world,” she said. “I felt it was a good fit for my personal needs.”
Some of the things that attracted her to public health were the fluidity of the field and the seemingly endless possibilities.
“It is always changing,” she said. “There will always be issues to tackle and people to help.”
Bigelow already has plans for her public health practice. While she plans to tackle her graduate degree next, she hopes to use her child and maternal health practice to start working to help ensure that children and mothers alike receive the care they need.
Armed with a wealth of knowledge, experiences and lifelong relationships, the world had better brace itself for the Bulls entering the professional world. While no one can be certain of what the future holds, one thing is for sure – the fall graduating class of 2014 holds bright and motivated individuals who are ready to make waves in public health.
Story by Shelby Bourgeois, College of Public Health writing intern. Photos courtesy of Natalie D. Preston, Angelica Williams and Entela Balliu.
Tags: Abu-Sayeef Mirza, Angelica Williams, commencement, Donna Haiduven, graduation, infection control, Kay Perrin, King O’Neal Scholar Award, Mary Bigelow, Morsani College of Medicine, Undergraduate Public Health Student Association, USF Alumni Association