Alumna Elizabeth Dunn’s devotion to disaster preparedness

| Departments, Featured News, Global Health, Monday Letter, Our Alumni

In 2008 USF College of Public Health alumna Elizabeth Dunn was volunteering with the Center for Peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina, helping to build conversations in the community to assist with the need for transitional justice.

She assisted families that lost loved ones in the war and women who had been held in rape camps for months.

Dunn had just earned two bachelor’s degrees from USF in economics and international studies, but she said something was missing from her repertoire of knowledge to help in times of disaster.

USF Health

Elizabeth Dunn, MPH. (Photo by Sandra Roa, USF Health Office of Communications)

“There is a need for recovery and development in a city that has been completely destroyed after war,” Dunn said. “From the infrastructure to the mental health components; that’s where I learned that public health is really what all that entails and encompasses.”

Her interest in economic development showed her that in order for individuals to contribute to the economy, they have to be not only educated, but healthy.

It was with that notion that she decided to pursue her master’s degree in global disaster management and humanitarian relief from the Department of Global Health.

“It was in perfect alignment with what I’m passionate about and interested in,” Dunn said of the program. “I worked a lot with refugees and post-disaster recovery, so when you’re looking at public health areas, you might find a program that looks at disaster management, but it usually focuses on natural disasters, not necessarily conflict or manmade disasters. Nothing compared to the program USF offered.”

Dunn became one of the first graduates of the program earning her MPH in 2011.

“Every single class I took was very exciting and you can see how it applies to the field and what you’re passionate about,” she said. “I got to work with amazing faculty who have been doing research and field work that was so eye opening.”

She fondly recalls Global Health’s Dr. Wayne Westhoff, former associate professor, and Dr. Jamie Corvin, assistant professor, during the course of her degree.

“[Wesfhoff and Corvin] took me under their wing and gave me a good understanding of the field of disaster recovery and how to conduct a community needs assessment,” she said. “They gave me a real understanding of global health in the field.”

E. Dunn Belize

Elizabeth Dunn in front of the Belize Ministry of Health in 2013 where she took a student group to volunteer. She originally worked in Belize while earning her master’s degree and conducted field research on health needs in the area on behalf of the ministry. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn).

As a student Dunn stayed active in volunteering, becoming a member of the Pinellas County Office of Emergency Management, American Red Cross and United Nations Association Student Alliance.

It was her love of helping others during times of need that led her to continue volunteering with the American Red Cross upon graduation.

Her first assignment was in New York during Hurricane Sandy, a category 3 hurricane that struck the eastern U.S. in 2012.

E. Dunn FEMA

Elizabeth Dunn during deployment at Staten Island following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. She stayed on a retired naval ship where FEMA Corps, American Red Cross & FEMA employees would sleep since housing and facilities were not available. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn).

She worked closely with the American Red Cross for three years when she decided to join USF and share her international and national disaster relief experiences with future grads.

Dunn is now an adjunct faculty member in Global Health, where she teaches various courses on disaster preparedness.

As an instructor, Dunn tries to incorporate her international travel experiences in her work with students and engages them with current projects in the community.

“Each of them have a different passion for the field and it’s nice to see and work with them to bring that out,” she said.

As someone who was previously sitting in the student’s seat, Dunn said she understands the anxiety students might feel upon graduating, so she works hard to make sure they are ready by providing them numerous community engagements where they are given the opportunity to network and come face-to-face with those working on the front lines of disaster preparedness.

“Seeing the students I’ve had over the past four years graduate and do things in the field is really rewarding,” she said. “Many of them keep in contact with me, so I get to see them grow and flourish. Many of them go into various graduate programs around the country or start working around the world.”

She takes pride in knowing she may have had an impact on her student’s lives.

Her students are also getting recognized by FEMA, who recently decided to use their work as a national example.

The students and Dunn assisted with integrating public health components into the local mitigation strategies for Hillsborough County that will soon be used as the national example of how counties should be incorporating public health components in disaster response plans.

“That means a lot, that’s a project we worked on with students and now FEMA is recognizing it at the national level,” she said.

E. Dunn Syrian Refugee Assistance

Elizabeth Dunn and students enrolled in her Community Engagement in Public Health Preparedness course worked with Iraqi and Syrian refugees to help with resettlement and transition in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn).

Dunn’s touch has also expanded well beyond the classroom.

In 2015 she was awarded the Human Rights Award from the Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council, an award recognizing her volunteer work with the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force, the refugee mental health subcommittee, the Refugee and Migrant Women’s Initiative (RAMWI), the United Nations Association, the Hillsborough County Local Mitigation Strategy Working Group, Hillsborough County Emergency Management, and the American Red Cross where she volunteers as a First Aid/CPR/AED Instructor, and Disaster Action Team lead.

“You don’t realize all the work you’re doing and what it means to the community and to hear them come back and say ‘you don’t understand what this means to us,’ was really nice,” she said.

Dunn said she’s enjoying her time at USF and while she does dream of one day working for an international organization out of Washington, D.C., her practice of mentoring and teaching students continues to fuel her passion in global disaster management and humanitarian relief, especially at her alma mater.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing right now and I’ll keep doing it until I don’t like it anymore, but I don’t think that will ever happen!” she said.  “It’s remarkable to see how COPH is working hard to stay ahead of the game and engaging in ways to improve our programs.”


Fast Five for COPH Alumni:

What did you want to be when you grew up?

“It changed every week! I actually wanted to be an oceanographer and marine biologist.”

Where can we find you on the weekend?

“Volunteering. I teach CPR every weekend at the Red Cross, teach disaster preparedness in the community, or host events for students to engage with our refugees here in Tampa.”

What was the last book that you read?

“I Am Malala.”

If you could have any super power, what would it be?

“To freeze time and still be able to work. I would love that!”

What is your all-time favorite movie?

“Hotel Rwanda, The Whistleblower, or Girl Rising, anything with a cultural flair and based on a true story.”


Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health