As a public health student during a pandemic, Allie Atkeson saw firsthand how what she’s learned at Carolina can make a positive difference for those around her.
“I studied maternal and child health because we know that early life events affect our trajectories,” Atkeson said. “I’m interested in researching evidence-based policies that support family well-being and reduce health inequities.”
Atkeson’s interest in public health began in high school when the northern Virginia native spent her summers volunteering with Hurricane Katrina relief work programs in Louisiana and Mississippi.
After she graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2012, she spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington, D.C., as a health educator at the Latin American Youth Center.
She then spent five years running public health campaigns in her home state of Virginia, including helping people sign up for the Affordable Care Act and improving access to healthy food in low-income areas.
In all of these experiences, she saw cracks in the public health system and wanted to help improve them. She decided to pursue her master’s in public health — and she felt that it was important to do so at a public university.
“I really wanted to study public health at a public university,” Atkeson said. “When I looked at Carolina, it became very clear to me that the University takes its responsibility to the state of North Carolina very seriously.”
That commitment to serving the state was the main draw to Carolina.
“I chose Carolina because of the school’s commitment to the North Carolina community,” Atkeson said. “My academic mentors, like Meghan Shanahan and Anna Austin at the School of Public Health, conduct important research on child and family well-being, while also participating in practice activities to make sure that all North Carolinians have access to the resources they need.”
Now, as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, Atkeson knows her work and knowledge in public health is more important than ever.
“At its best, our public health system runs at a low hum, but events like COVID-19 reveal the cracks in the system,” Atkeson said. “Our country has a long way to go to improve our public health infrastructure, and I believe Gillings students, faculty and staff play a key part.”
Even though the last months of her master’s program were completed remotely, Atkeson found a way to engage with the Carolina community.
Since early March, she has recruited volunteers to help distribute food to Orange County residents with PORCH, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina and the Town of Chapel Hill. On any given Wednesday, the team distributes food to more than 2,000 community members.
Atkeson said that volunteering has been a meaningful way to give back to the community that supported her during her two years at Carolina.
“As a student at Carolina, I directly benefit from the residents of Carrboro and Chapel Hill who work to support the University,” Atkeson said. “As I’m wrapping up my degree, it’s been really nice to engage in an activity that I feel like is directly related to public health, and to make sure our neighbors have food on the table.”
As she begins her public health career, Atkeson hopes to continue working to ensure equitable access to essential resources on the state level.
“I’d love to work for a state Medicaid agency, which makes sure that low-income individuals and families have access to health care,” Atkeson said. “My interest is to advance policies to make sure that our public health system is strong all of the time.”