A spirited pair of undergraduates were among a handful who represented the College of Public Health on USF Day at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Feb. 11. Like their counterparts from the university’s other colleges, their presence was part of the institution in the big picture.
“We were there to lobby for all of the USF system’s biggest legislative agendas,” said Brittney Devallon, a junior from Chantilly, Va.
Those agendas included the proposed downtown Tampa campus for the Morsani College of Medicine and a new college of business building for the St. Petersburg campus, she said.
Students were divided into several small groups that were then assigned different meetings with particular legislative committees. They got more than just a little taste of legislative lobbying in a single day’s event as their direct exercise with state government stretched more than 12 hours.
“It was a long day,” said senior Joe Close. “I actually went up the day before and helped finalize the itineraries with a few other people who were already there. We worked on those until about 3 in the morning.”
Most of the USF student contingent boarded Tallahassee-bound buses on campus at about the time those itinerary meetings wrapped up.
“I was really proud of the group that came up,” Close said, “and how resilient they were with being at the school at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
“The buses left at 4,” Devallon said, “and we were literally in Tallahassee at 8 o’clock when the sessions started.”
It was 9 or 10 p.m. when the sessions concluded, Devallon said, and the return trip landed them back at USF at 1 a.m. the following day.
“It was a fun day, though,” she said.
Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, the legislators were a busy bunch, Close said.
“It was very regimented,” he said. “Like, 12:10 to 12:24 would be the schedule for a meeting. We’d just go over each goal with the different representatives, and sometimes they’d be like, ‘Okay, thanks for stopping by.’ One representative wanted to be very detailed: ‘How do you feel about this? How do you, as a student, feel about it?’
“So, we got to have some interaction back and forth. I think the different groups we had really represented the university pretty well.”
A National Guard air defense veteran from Leesburg, Fla., Close said he “heard a lot of good things about the College of Public Health” from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also made a few friends who had gone to USF, and he decided to move to Tampa after completing his service commitment.
After taking stabs at nursing and then athletic training (after playing USF rugby), the resilient Close felt frustrated but determined to find the field of study that was for him.
An aunt, an RN with an MPH from the University of Michigan, piqued his interest in the vast and varied reach of public health.
“She was telling me about how she used to work for the state of Florida,” he said, “inspecting hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. I said, ‘That sounds kind of interesting. Let me learn a little more about it.’”
A COPH information session convinced him to try a semester, and he knew he’d found his place.
“I got into it,” he said. “I love the COPH. From the curriculum to the faculty and everyone else there, I can say that they are the best I could ask for.”
Not surprisingly, USF Day at the Capitol wasn’t his first exposure to meeting important people, and he credits his earlier experiences with priming him for his trip to the capitol.
“I was stationed in Washington, D.C., and I got to talk with senators and generals and the secretary of defense. I think that helped,” he said.
Devallon also came to COPH as a seeker. She said she had always had her heart set on a career as a medical doctor, but almost failing a high school chemistry class, even after tutoring and extra hours of study, convinced her it wasn’t going to happen. After a quick glance at nursing, she drew the same conclusion.
After bouncing from business to English to theater to fine arts, she said, she wanted more than ever to settle on something that mattered to her, that honored that feeling that she “always knew” that she wanted to help people.
“So,” she said, “I sat down and said, ‘Okay, how can I help people – and not take biology and chemistry,’” she added with laughter.
More determined research led her to health care administration. With that choice came the explanation that she couldn’t major in health care administration as an undergraduate. Since that graduate major was housed at COPH, undergraduate studies in public health finally became her focus.
Now, she said, she’s not even sure that health care administration is for her, simply because public health studies have shown her a world of possibilities she had never imagined.
“It may be global health or global disaster relief,” she said. “I really just see public health as the door to anything I can do in the health care field, all reaching back to my goal of just helping people.”
For Close, USF Day at the Capitol opened a world of broader networking possibilities.
“One of the representatives I met was Danny Burgess, who represents part of Pasco County,” he said. “He’s a fellow veteran, so we connected there. From my understanding, he has ties with the committees on public health. So, you never know. Doing these kinds of things can help you in the future, as well.”
In addition to their public health studies, both students continue to value their extra-curricular activities, the single-day events as well as the longer engagements.
Devallon is second vice president of USF NAACP, membership chair of the Black Female Development Circle, and a civic engagement board member with the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement.
The combination of studies and extra-curriculars might be challenging for some, but for Close, who is ramping up his involvement with Operation Smile and the Undergraduate Public Health Student Association, dedication is a great enabler.
“I think that once you find something that you’re passionate about,” he said, “you’ll find out it’s a lot easier to be motivated.”
Story by David Brothers, College of Public Health. Photos courtesy of Joseph Close and Brittney Devallon.