Growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, Savannah Scott ’22 saw how factors ranging from poverty and housing insecurity to the lack of sexual health education for young people profoundly impacted the health of her community. As she entered her senior year in high school, she felt such a call to action to address those issues that she sought dual enrollment at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. “I wanted to learn how I could address those social determinants and best reduce the disparities I was seeing,” she explained.
Scott believed that studying pre-medical sciences on the undergraduate level and then going on to medical school to become a physician was the best route to realizing a career meeting community health needs. But when she arrived at Hollins University in the fall of 2019, Associate Professor of History Rachel Nuñez recommended that she might want to look into a new academic program the university was launching that year.
“Professor Nuñez suggested I enroll in the Introduction to Public Health course,” Scott recalled. “She thought I’d be a great fit, but if not, I could certainly continue on the pre-med track. I took it, and I fell in love.”
As a public health major, Scott enjoyed three significant internship opportunities. First, she worked with the Child Health Investment Partnership of Roanoke Valley, which promotes the health of medically underserved children in the area. “Through them, I was able to shadow community health nurses as well as research and outreach. It solidified my interest in learning more about the public health field.”
Working with Myriah LeGaux ’15, Scott also interned at Taking Aim at Cancer in Louisiana, a statewide initiative whose goal is to improve cancer outcomes. “That’s where I became interested in and was able to focus on chronic disease,” she said. “In a number of Louisiana parishes, there is a high incidence, especially with underserved minority populations. “I was really inspired to see how health care and public policy directly affect the health of the Louisiana community.”
Her third internship, with the Roanoke City Health Department, was coordinated by Dr. Cynthia Morrow, director of the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts and formerly a visiting professor of public health at Hollins. “This confirmed my desire to work on the frontlines of public health and learn more about health care policy,” Scott said. “With state and regional epidemiologists, we drafted an outbreak report to promote a recommended health care policy to increase prevention and lower the risk of Hepatitis A transmission in the Roanoke community.”
Prior to graduating from Hollins last year, Scott earned acceptance to all six of the Master of Public Health programs to which she applied. But during the application process, “I realized I wanted to get more solid work experience before I got more knowledge.” She connected with Diane Hall ’88, a senior health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, who in turn put her in touch with a CDC official. “I told him I wanted to work on the frontlines of public health but had limited experience, and he said, ‘Why don’t you give our Public Health Associate Program a shot?’”
The CDC’s Public Health Associate Program (PHAP) is designed to give recent college graduates who seek a career in public health the opportunity to work with professionals in an array of public health settings, including state, tribal, local, and territorial public health agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Since it began in 2007, the two-year paid training program has placed more than 1,650 public health associates across 49 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, and most go on to serve in positions in public health organizations: In 2021, 80% of PHAP graduates accepted jobs in public health.
With thousands of applicants each year for an average of between 300 and 400 positions, Scott noted that the selection process is rigorous. “Once your initial application is chosen, you’re required to submit personal statements and preferences about the specialties in which you want to work and where you want to be located. Once you get past that stage, you interview with some of the supervisors. Then, you are matched with a host site supervisor.”
Scott admitted she was “initially nervous about the application process, especially since it was my senior year and I wanted to make sure that my classes were going smoothly. Plus, people apply every year with different levels of experience, some with master’s degrees and some just graduating like me. I was grateful to Assistant Professor of Public Health Abubakarr Jalloh for his guidance and mentorship, and to Assistant Professor of History Christopher Florio, who helped me prepare for my interviews.”
For Scott, acceptance into PHAP has become “my journey back home”: She is returning to Fairbanks, where she lived for more than a decade (her father was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base there and returned to the area upon his retirement from military service). Beginning in October, she will serve with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Alaska Native nonprofit dedicated to meeting the health and social service needs of tribal members and beneficiaries throughout the region.
“I’ll be focusing on the quality of current policies related to health care services, and if needed, change and improve them to best fit the needs and desires of the people,” she explained. “I am looking to gain experience working directly with the community. In my internships at Hollins, I got bits and pieces of seeing how the work we created impacted those we served, but now on an ongoing basis I’ll be able go out and interview people and get their direct feedback on how our initiatives are affecting them. That’s the goal of public health – we are here to serve the health of the public.”
Scott said she is looking forward to “being a sponge, ready to absorb all the information they’re willing to provide for me” in two particular areas. “I want to learn more about collecting data on the transmission of chronic and communicable diseases, and also how to create a dialogue that builds comfort and trust with the population we’re serving.”
With an interest in ultimately becoming a chronic disease epidemiologist, Scott is considering pursuing an MD/Master of Public Health program after she completes the PHAP. However, she emphasized that all options are on the table.
“At this point, I’m really just diving deep into this assignment and allowing it to inform my next steps. I want to have an open mind, because during this program I might come across a great opportunity that I never would have otherwise thought of.”
Whatever the future brings for her, Scott is confident that right now, “I’m following my heart. My passion for public health has allowed me to come full circle, starting in Alaska and ending in Alaska.”