Health equity strategist and COPH DrPH student Shara Wesley receives prestigious 40 Under 40 award

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For the last 24 years, the staff at Georgia Trend has selected some of the state’s “best and brightest” for inclusion in its 40 Under 40 award. This year, one of those 40 includes Shara Wesley, a health equity strategist who will receive her DrPH degree in advanced practice leadership in public health from the USF College of Public Health (COPH) this December. 

Wesley, a St. Petersburg, Fla., native, got her start in public health at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), serving in student government.

“I served as the first surgeon general, introducing new student health education programs and launching the first collegiate American Cancer Society Relay for Life in North Florida,” said Wesley, who got her MPH at FAMU along with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry. “What I love about public health is how it touches every aspect of our lives—from the quality of our drinking water to access to critical health care services and support. A strong public health system is essential for our country to thrive.”

Diverse and Dedicated

Wesley has practiced her public health passion in various sectors, from corporate America (in health care policy at Eli Lilly) to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to non-profit health care.

Today, Wesley is the executive director of the Wellstar Center for Health Equity (WCHE) and Community Health Department. Wellstar Health System is one of Georgia’s largest and most integrated health care systems and Wesley oversees policies, community health needs assessments, program planning, development and evaluation, and adherence to regulatory requirements and reporting.

“My role at Wellstar sits at the perfect intersection of strategy and implementation,” she commented. “I love working with my team to develop, execute, and oversee the health equity strategic plan to ensure that objectives and goals are aligned with identified community health needs. The diversity in how and where public health can be practiced has afforded me a rich professional journey.”

“Showing Up” for Communities in Need

Access to health care took on a new and urgent importance this year, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.  And Wesley rose to the challenge.

Shara Wesley, third from left, with her Wellstar team and Georgia Congressman David Scott (center), during a COVID-19 pop-up testing and food distribution event. (Photo courtesy of Wesley)

“During COVID, we were able to operationalize pop-up testing in partnership with local public health departments to increase testing accessibility for Black, Latinx and/or rural Georgians, said Wesley. “It’s been a team effort—everyone coming together so we can show up for the communities that need us the most. Addressing social determinants of health is important for improving health and reducing long-standing disparities in health and health care.”

DrPH and Beyond

Wesley first learned about the COPH after hearing Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the COPH, deliver the keynote speech at Florida’s first state conference on women’s health. 

“Back in 2006,  I was in awe listening to her share her insights on the health of Florida’s women and how the USF College of Public Health was training the country’s new generations of leaders. Many years later, I thought of her as I was looking for a rigorous program that offered virtual options and was highly respected by the academic community—USF was the perfect choice.”

Wesley, who will graduate with a 3.9 GPA, also says she’s been inspired by COPH Associate Dean and Director of the DrPH Program, Dr. Janice Zgibor. “She never ceases to amaze me in her ability to take on new professional challenges, maintain a commitment to her yoga practice, and always leading with empathy,” stated Wesley. “I also appreciate how I have never felt like ‘just another student’ to her. She’s always been honestly interested in my family, my career, and my well-being. She has inspired me to be more balanced and mindful in how I use my energy.”

Post graduation, Wesley looks forward to reconnecting with her family (“I know they will be so happy that I am not stuck behind a computer because I have ‘homework!’ ”) and continue working in the non-profit health care industry. 

“Here’s a quote that I live by,” she said. “ ‘When it’s all over, I will have done all that I could do with my talents. I will not waste a single one. And my legacy will be that I encouraged everyone else to do the same.’ ”

(Soon-to-be) Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

I always wanted to get my doctorate and to be a change-maker for good in communities. Early in life, my parents instilled in me the importance of faith and serving others—I just wasn’t sure how it would wind up as a career until later in life.

Where can we find you on the weekends?

During the pandemic—home with my family, doing puzzles, taking walks and picking new shows on Netflix.

What is the last book you read?

After I defend my dissertation, I look forward to recreational reading. I have President Obama’s book “The Promised Land” already on deck.

What superpower would you like to have?

Invisibility. (All my fellow introverts will understand this.)

What’s your all-time favorite movie?

Any musical. “Jingle Jangle” has recently been added to my list of favorites.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health