From a young age, Desiree VanBurger knew that she wanted to help people help themselves.
“What I wanted to do when I grew up was stand on top of the world with a megaphone and tell everyone what to do,” VanBurger said. “So, the idea of being involved with the general welfare of the public has always been with me.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in health science education from the University of Florida in 2001, VanBurger flipped the script, and went from student to educator and began working as an English teacher in the public school system.
“As I finished undergrad, I was looking at graduate programs in public health. At the time, I was focused on global health and/or maternal and child health,” she said.
VanBurger worked in high needs schools as a literacy advocate in the Orange County public school system, in Orlando, Fla., corralling 25 or more teenagers at a time.
“I considered this an extension of my background in health,” Vanburger said. “Literacy is a life skill and the lack of literacy is powerfully correlated with negative outcomes in a person’s life.”
After more than ten years as a teacher, VanBurger pulled what she refers to as “a complete 180.”
As public schools shifted curriculum to focus on standardized testing, she again found herself looking for public health graduate programs and decided on the USF College of Public Health. Despite living in Orlando, VanBurger chose USF for its extensive online offerings and the variety of programs.
As a student in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, VanBurger earned her master of science in public health (MSPH) with a concentration in industrial hygiene in 2015, and ultimately considers her successful leap from English to public health something she is most proud of accomplishing during her time at the COPH.
“I quit my job and decided to pursue a career most people have never heard of, that required math and science skills that I either didn’t have, or hadn’t used in years,” she said. “People doubted whether I could or should do that, I was anxious too…but I did it. I went from being the most underprepared student in my cohort to being one of the best.”
VanBurger drew a wealth of support from faculty at the COPH, including Drs. Steve Mlynarek and Tom Bernard, which helped her accomplish her scholastic goals. She also notes that without the funding of the Sunshine Education and Research Center and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, she could not have managed to do this.
Currently, VanBurger works as associate safety professional at Walt Disney World’s Safety Services and Industrial Hygiene. Her team serves as the internal consultants for industrial hygiene issues at the parks and resorts.
“No two days are exactly the same. Some days I sit at my desk and read safety data sheets, some days I watch parades at the happiest place on Earth, and some days I am getting a backstage tour of the largest commercial laundry facility in the word, or a six million gallon aquarium,” VanBurger said. “Some days I spend talking with and observing the people who do the work you never see when you come here as a guest, and these people work so hard. I am proud to be positive proof that their employer is looking out for them and doing the right thing with regard to their occupational health and safety.”
VanBurger puts the skills she learned at the COPH to practice on a daily basis: she asks questions, gathers information, reads and researches, makes decisions, collaborates with others and manages data.
“The main thing I learned at the COPH is that yes, it’s hard. Sometimes the reading or thinking that’s necessary to figure something out is not the most exciting thing, nor the most obvious or simple. But the only way out is through, so you have to keep at it until you figure it out,” VanBurger said.
Happy at work, her current plans are to learn as much as she can, continue working, and eventually sit for and the Certified Industrial Hygienist exam.
Outside of public health, VanBurger describes herself as a woman of simple interests—recently married, she enjoys hanging out with her husband, cooking, watching her son play basketball and crafting.
“I’m a little bit artsy-crafty,” VanBurger said. “I like painting my nails and doing other creative things—paper crafts, and so on. I also have pets, so one of my hobbies is sweeping up hair. Just kidding, I know that’s not a real hobby!”
Whether working in education or public health, there’s always been a common, connecting thread in VanBurger’s work—her dedication to providing service to others.
“I believe we are here to love each other and do what we can to help those in need,” she said. “I don’t see a lot of purpose in pursuit of profits; for me, it’s important to be of service to others. It makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile and good.”
Fast Five for COPH Alumni:
What did you dream of becoming when you were young?
THE BOSS. Of what? Anything and everything.
Where would we find you on the weekend?
For about the next five weekends, on my couch, I hope. I just got married, and a wedding and having tons of guests from out of town was exhausting.
What is the last book you read?
“Flood of Fire,” by Amitav Ghosh.
What superpower would you like to have?
I’d like to be able to sleep like a normal person, at night, all night long.
What’s your all-time favorite movie?
I don’t really watch too many movies, I can’t be quiet for that many minutes in a row.
Story by Shelby Bourgeois, USF College of Public Health