When Carolina sophomore Ashlyn Clark first signed up for “Gillings on the Ground,” a program to train individuals on working with communities in disaster preparedness and relief, she didn’t know about the variety of opportunities where she could immediately start applying her new knowledge and skills.
But inspired by a local health department employee’s presentation, she reached out to Orange County Environmental Health Director Victoria Hudson to see how she could be part of the local response effort to COVID-19.
“[I was] just asking for a non-paid, experiential position that I could kind of get my feet wet, and I was really interested in Victoria as the environmental health director because I had that environmental health interest and motivation to learn more about that,” Clark said.
Clark, a medical anthropology and public policy double major from Denton, Texas, wasn’t a neophyte when it came to working directly with public health research. She spent her first year at Carolina assisting in a UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health research lab looking at antibiotic-resistant E.coli pollution and its effects on local groundwater and well resources across North Carolina.
“I was always interested in public health, and that really pushed me to look at the social aspects of why these specific wells were polluted, why these communities,” she said. “That was the undergraduate degree I was looking at going toward at Gillings before I decided to look at more of the behavioral side of things.”
Since October 2020, Clark has been volunteering for the Orange County Health Department, first with assessing the safety of drinking water and then assisting with business outreach as part of the department’s response to COVID-19.
“She tested water quality, made reports to the assigned field staff when non-compliance was observed, disseminated information and new signage, and answered ad hoc questions from operators and community clients like she was a seasoned pro,” Hudson noted.
Since the beginning of 2021, Clark has been helping local businesses promote their safe business practices. Clark said that she wanted businesses to participate since they had done so much to stay open. Her outreach will continue by leading a health department effort to ensure frontline workers have access to COVID-19 vaccinations.
“[There are] the businesses that might not have the resources to get registered or know that they are qualified for the vaccination, so it’s really pushing that community outreach and making sure that everybody in the community is aware of who is currently able to get vaccinated, basically to make sure we’re reaching every corner of the community, especially the businesses that have supported our community through this hardship,” Clark said.
Since she arrived at Carolina, Clark has known that she wanted to pursue public health as a career, but she initially thought it was all based in the hard sciences. Her volunteer role has opened her eyes to a different angle.
“It wasn’t until I started working with Victoria that I started understanding there’s that field of communication — personable relationships — that comes with some public health positions, where I don’t necessarily need to know all the scientific background. I just need to understand the social impacts of our society and the way that influences local communities,” she said. “Working with the health department and with Victoria has really allowed me to get out into the community and interact with people I never would have met otherwise and see their experiences and really understand what public health is.”
It’s not just in downtown Chapel Hill businesses and neighborhood pools where you’ll find Clark giving back to the community. She also spends time volunteering as part of the Carolina COVID-19 Student Service Corps, working at Carolina Together Testing Program centers at CURRENT Art Space and the Carolina Union. Clark also is part of the North Carolina Fellows program, where undergraduate students learn to maximize their leadership potential.
“Especially now in the COVID age, I feel like it’s really important to give back to your community when your community has been going through so much for so long,” Clark said.