COPH graduates 273 public health heroes from a distance

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“I would ask you as you’re watching, listening and reading about COVID-19, ask your graduate to explain to you how what they have learned and studied is applied. Everything that we do in public health can be applied to the current pandemic and situation we are in right now,” said USF College of Public Health’s Dean Donna Petersen.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s graduation ceremony was presented virtually to family, friends, students, faculty and staff. Petersen delivered her address and congratulated the Spring 2020 graduating class of in front of a camera instead of an audience. (To watch the ceremony, click here).

Dean Donna Petersen during the COPH Virtual Graduation Ceremony.
Dean Donna Petersen during the COPH Virtual Graduation Ceremony.

This semester, 145 undergraduates, 117 masters and 11 doctoral students graduated and entered the public health profession.

“Everything, from the data we collect, the way we analyze it, how we use the tools of biostatistics and epidemiology, how we approach very important policy issues, how we engage the public in conversation and finally how we address environmental/behavioral issues, your students have studied,” Petersen said. “Our graduates are prepared to go out and help fight this great fight.”

Every year the COPH Excellence in Teaching awardee offers words of inspiration to the graduating class. This year’s speaker was COPH alumna and visiting instructor Elizabeth Dunn.

“This disruption in our society may feel unprecedented as uncertainty looms, but I want to share with you this anonymous quote that may help you navigate through the challenges ahead and what I live by in my own life,” Dunn said. “Not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear your path.”

COPH alumna and visiting instructor Elizabeth Dunn during the graduation ceremony.
COPH alumna and visiting instructor Elizabeth Dunn during the graduation ceremony.

“As you start your journey in the height of a pandemic, you might think that many plans and celebrations that you earned and deserve have been ruined. However, in the long run you may in fact change your mind,” Dunn continued. “Just remember this is what great stories are made of, stories that you may someday tell your younger colleagues eager to get into the field of public health, stories that you will share with grandchildren. You will be able to share with conviction: we made history.”

Dr. Claudia Cooperman, assistant dean of undergraduate studies, also presented her end to the year address to the graduating class.

“The future is more vibrant for you than it has ever been and you are ready for it. We need people educated in all areas of health more than ever. We need leaders to make sure that the public is educated, that communities are taken care of, and the right information is presented in the right way,” Cooperman said. “I know that you are those leaders.”

Dr. Claudia Cooperman, assistant dean of undergraduate studies, presenting during the graduation ceremony.
Dr. Claudia Cooperman, assistant dean of undergraduate studies, presenting during the graduation ceremony.

“USF has prepared you, you are ready for what is going on in the world right now and we need you. We all need you,” Cooperman said. “You will be the health leaders of tomorrow and we at the COPH will be your cheerleaders all the way.”

Here are some of the stories from the Class of 2020:

Justin Weiner, BSPH

BSPH graduate Justin Weiner is the COPH’s King O’ Neal Scholar due to his cumulative GPA of 4.0. Along with this honor, Weiner has also been the recipient of the Student Health Services Trainer of the Year and Student Health Services Administrative Awards, a member of the Delta Omega Honor Society, and has presented at the 2018 USF Undergraduate Research Fall Expo and the 2019 Spring USF Undergraduate Research Conference.

“When coming into college, I planned on completing the pre-med track and applying to medical school,” said Weiner. “I decided to become a public health major so that I could learn a different viewpoint on health care and utilize that experience as a physician when treating my patients.”

Justin Weiner, BSPH (Photo by Aaron Hill)
Justin Weiner, BSPH (Photo by Aaron Hill)

Weiner said that he chose the USF COPH due to the wide range of opportunities available to volunteer at hospitals and the connections and programs through the COPH’s numerous connections with Hillsborough County and the Tampa Bay community.

“Overall, I highly enjoyed the undergraduate program at the College of Public Health. I think this program is especially unique as there are not many undergraduate public health programs throughout the nation,” he said. “Additionally, the incorporation of interprofessional events and opportunities through the county provides many resources for students to gain more experiences.”

Weiner said that his proudest accomplishment at the COPH was his time as a research assistant working with instructor Elizabeth Dunn. As her research assistant, he was able to work on Hillsborough County’s Local Mitigation Strategy and Hillsborough County’s Community Needs Assessment.

“These experiences allowed me to engage with individuals in the local community and to assist with improving the disparities that are present,” he said.

Justin Weiner’s explains his passion for medicine.

Weiner will be attending the University of Florida’s College of Medicine after graduation to continue to pursue his goal of becoming a physician.

“I hope to learn how to be a good doctor and a caring physician. I think that learning how to be there for a patient in their time of need is vital,” he said. “Through the University of Florida College of Medicine’s medical student research program, I hope to continue performing public health research in healthcare.”

Yingwei Yang, PhD

Dr. Yingwei Yang was born and raised in a small town in the northeast of China. In 2004 she moved to Jinan, China for her BMSc degree in preventative Medicine from Shandong University and then moved to Beijing in 2009 to earn her MSc degree in maternal, child and adolescent health from Peking University.

“I chose to attend the USF COPH for my PhD program for the following reasons: there were wonderful professors with expertise in the areas of violence and injuries, which matched with my research interests; I was not only offered a university fellowship for the first two years of my study, but also opportunities to get involved in research activities from the very beginning, which was a very important factor for me to choose USF;  I did several rounds of interviews with faculty and students in the previous Department of Community and Family Health, familiarizing me with the department and convincing me that it would be  great to be part of,” Yang said.

Dr. Yingwei Yang (Photo courtesy of Yang)
Dr. Yingwei Yang (Photo courtesy of Yang)

As an international student, Yang said that she faced challenges with the language barrier and the cultural differences.

“In the first semester of my PhD program, I was neither able to follow the instructions in class, nor actively participate in group discussions. Meanwhile, I had to learn to communicate with diverse groups of people outside of class in a culturally appropriate manner.  It was a very stressful situation and I had to improve my language ability and culture competency quickly,” she said. “It was a remarkable and unforgettable journey studying and working in the USF College of Public Health. In the past 5 years, I was able to gain sufficient support from faculty, staff and other students in COPH, which helped me a lot in completing the program.”

During her time at the COPH, Yang lead the USF Activist Lab Student‘s Advisory Board since its inception in 2018, founded journal clubs and writing groups, coordinated boot camps, seminars, tabling events and participated in outreach activities. She also served as the co-chair for Doctoral Advisory Committee in the previous Department of Community and Family Health in 2016, facilitating communications between PhD students and the department.

Yang has accepted a postdoctoral offer at Duke University responsible for project management of an NIH grant in the area of sports injuries, grant writing and submission, teaching and supervision of student researchers.

“This position matches well with my PhD training and research interests,” she said. “Moreover, it will provide me opportunities to participate in a nationwide research project and join an interdisciplinary research team, which will be beneficial to my career development.”

Yang said that in the future she hopes to work in academia and continue her research on violence and injuries, support students’ success in public health education and training, and promote health and well-being for diverse groups of people, especially children and adolescents.

Emily Zapf, MHA

“Until I arrived at USF, I had very little experience in the field of public health. I was always interested in the business side of healthcare because my strengths include data analytics and finance,” said graduate Emily Zapf. “The MHA program at USF is so unique because it not only provides students with the management skills to become great leaders in healthcare, but it also allows students to gain a comprehensive view of the interconnected system of the healthcare industry.”

During her time at the COPH, Zapf was involved in numerous organizations, serving as the president of the Healthcare Management Student Association, working as the finance committee intern for the American College of Healthcare Executives, and mentoring two high school students at Tampa Bay Tech.

“I am the proudest of my time served as president of the HMSA. I worked with the rest of the executive board to organize monthly professional development and guest speaker events for graduate students interested in healthcare administration,” Zapf said. “We also worked very hard to coordinate the career fair for MHA and MPH students who were searching for a summer internship or full-time job. Mentoring the first-year MHA students who represented the future of the program at USF was so rewarding.”

Emily Zapf, MHA (Photo courtesy of Zapf)
Emily Zapf, MHA (Photo courtesy of Zapf)

This fall, Zapf begins a two-year administrative fellowship with Sarasota Memorial Health Care System. In the meantime, she will also be working for the State of Florida and helping with COVID-19 response efforts.

Year one as the SMHCS Administrative Fellow will include shadowing opportunities as she rotates through each department or service of the health system. The second year will be spent completing ad hoc projects according to her interests and strengths.

“I plan to apply all of the core competencies that we developed during our time in the USF MHA program to my future career. They include analytical thinking, strategy and leadership, community engagement, economic and financial management, and professionalism. I was able to develop these skills inside the classroom through coursework and projects, and outside the classroom at my internship positions,” she said.  “In addition, I will be able to demonstrate the time management skills that I developed while working and going to school full-time these last two years.”

Zapf said that her dream job is working as a hospital administrator specializing in operations and finance.

“I hope to improve price and information transparency in the healthcare industry and help patients navigate the complex system to receive the highest quality care at the most affordable price,” she said. This is so important in the United States, especially for vulnerable patient populations who may not have the same resources as others when trying to keep themselves or their families healthy.” 

Public health heroes from the Class of 2020 on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Trang Chitakone, MPH
Trang Chitakone, MPH

Trang Chitakone, MPH

Chitakone is helping Pasco County at the Emergency Operations Center and working as part of the Florida Department of Health’s incident management team. She helped their epidemiology staff come up with processes for monitoring, ramped up staff for county investigations and worked closely with the county on communications related to COVID-19.

Jolie Dobson, MPH
Jolie Dobson, MPH

Jolie Dobson, MPH

Dobson works at Florida Department of Health- Miami-Dade in the epidemiology program. She conducts surveillance, identifies clusters and does site investigations at facilities affected by COVID-19 to stop the spread.

Linh Duong, PhD
Linh Duong, PhD

Linh Duong, PhD

Duong has recently been hired to assist the Florida Department of Health with the COVID-19 response. She’ll be an OPS Biological Administrator II assisting county health departments with epidemiological investigations relating to contact tracing and other surveillance activities onsite.

Kevin Shullick, MPH

Shullick helps facilitate the Hillsborough Hope tent city that was formed to safely shelter Tampa’s homeless population in response to the COVID-19 virus.

Megha Patel, BSPH

Patel has been testing the community for COVID-19. She also has been giving individuals the proper information by educating them not only about the COVID, but how to prevent others from getting the virus as well.

Story by Caitlin Keough, USF College of Public Health