Closing the gap between academia and the community

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The USF College of Public Health and the Florida Department of Health-Hillsborough County’s (FDOHH) yearlong Community Engagement Initiative exemplified what public health should be about, according to project supervisor Dr. Martha Coulter.

In 2014 the FDOHH provided a $50,000 grant to fund five $10,000 community projects, each consisting of a graduate student at the COPH and faculty member supervisor.

“It was a true collaborative effort to do something that the agency wanted to do and for students to be able to work in equal benefit with the community agency,” Coulter said. “The student’s skills were very useful to the agency, but they were learning just as much as the same time.”

Faculty, DOH staff and community members involved in the CEI during an awards ceremony held at the COPH to honor the work done in the first year of the project. (Photo by Ellen Kent)

Members of the FDOHH and COPH explored ways to increase their impact in the community through an established Community Engagement Committee, which became known as the Community Engagement Initiative (CEI).

The CEI provided grants to community agencies interested in responding to local public health concerns and those that needed assistance from the COPH.

Five projects were funded, including: Feeding America, a child hunger reduction project;  Latinos Unidos para un Nuevo Amanecer (LUNA), Inc., a project designed to provide emotional support, reduce barriers and facilitate access to care for Latino cancer survivors; Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, a project aimed at increasing awareness of healthy eating and increasing food donations; Champions for Children, a project focused on support (boot camps) for new dads; and Florida Institute for Community Services, focused on support for agricultural citrus workers.

The project was supervised by Coulter, professor in the Department of Community and Family Health (CFH) and director of the Harrell Center, and Walter Niles, manager of the Office of Health Equity, FDOHH.

The benefits of this initiative, as well as a case study of Champions for Children project, is outlined in “Community Engagement Initiative: Academia Partnering with the Health Department and Community Agencies for Change” in the Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education.

Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the COPH, said engagement of this nature is important to the overall student experience.

“Public health is an applied profession, conducted on behalf of and always in conjunction with the community,” Petersen said. “Providing experiences for our students to practice directly in and with communities and the organizations that serve them is critical to their education and their future success. We cherish our partnerships with our community – they make us the outstanding learning environment we are!”

Dr. Karen Liller, professor in CFH, served as the faculty supervisor to Casey McBride, an MPH graduate student involved in community engagement effort with Champions for Children.

“Many times community agency engagement is driven by academia, but this project was an agency project, they wrote up the proposal and the role for the student,” Liller said. “The student was our link at the programs. It really was the type of participatory research that you want to have.”

(From left): Dr. Chukwudi Ejiofor, project coordinator, Dr. Martha Coulter, principal investigator, and Casey McBride, MPH graduate student, during an awards ceremony held in honor of those involved in the CEI. (Photo by Ellen Kent)

McBride, earning his MPH from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics this upcoming summer, assisted Champions for Children by evaluating a new outreach program, Boot Camp for New Dads.

He analyzed surveys and conducted qualitative research with dads-to-be about their experience with the program.

“The interactions with the dads was the most enjoyable aspect because I got to see how public health in action can impart positive change firsthand,” McBride said. “It provided for a unique vantage point where I could see research being put into practice. The mentoring I received from my faculty advisors and Champions’ staff has proven invaluable in helping me fine tune my academic writing skills.”

Liller said McBride’s work helped the agency identify areas of improvement, as well as provided a new exposure to qualitative research McBride typically did not typically do as an epidemiology student.

Boot Camp for New Dads featured opportunities for new fathers to ask questions in an environment they felt most comfortable with and included both ‘Veteran Dads’ whose babies had just been born and those awaiting the arrival of their newborns. (Photo courtesy of Casey McBride)

“I think one of the best things about this whole initiative is that it included students and one of the goals is to groom those students to be our future leaders in public health,” Liller said.

While funding for the CEI was cut by the FDOH after the first year, Coulter said they are hoping to establish a new source of funding to continue in the future.

“It was a wonderful program and it’s just heartbreaking that it couldn’t continue,” Coulter said. “It gives you the opportunity to prepare our students to really go out there and be public health leaders, I just thought it was extraordinary.”


Coulter, M. L., Liller, K.D., Ejiodfor, C., McBride, C., Roth, J., Haile, A., & Cruz, L.  (2016).  Community Engagement Initiative:  Academia partnership with the health department and community agencies for change.  Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education, 8, 29-37.


Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health