The pursuit of a public health degree often involves exploring how determinants that go beyond the walls of a doctor’s office or hospital — such as access to food, housing and social support — affect a community’s well-being. This year, to give incoming students a hands-on look at this impact in the local community, the Student Government Association at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health launched its first Day of Service.
The event, which organized volunteer opportunities with five non-profits in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough, North Carolina, saw attendance by more than 50 first-year students from programs across the Gillings School. Participants spent the day with Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, the Town of Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation, Edible Campus UNC, the Art Therapy Institute of NC and the Eco-Institute at Pickard’s Mountain. Service projects ranged from planting gardens, installing vinyl siding and engaging in education around food, mental health, affordable housing and more.
“Community building is really important to public health,” said Alexa Prass, a coordinator for the event and a student in the Master of Public Health program’s nutrition concentration. “We wanted to partner with some of these organizations that have that firsthand perspective or work with local people here in the Triangle. And we tried really hard to make sure we dispersed students across the sites so they could meet people from different concentrations that have different lived experiences or work experiences they could learn from.”
Similar service events at Carolina professional schools, such as the Adams School of Dentistry, sparked the idea for Gillings Day of Service in early 2021. SGA leadership planned to launch the first event at a single site during the spring semester, but the timing made participation difficult for students in the midst of coursework. Rescheduling the event to align with fall 2021 orientation gave SGA ample time to plan a larger endeavor across multiple sites.
Prass worked with a team at Habitat for Humanity that consisted mostly of students who had never worked on a home construction project before. “The people there were great at teaching and empowering, reminding us that we are competent people who can figure this out.” It was an opportunity to contribute to housing for local families, as well as to collaborate with students in other disciplines that she might never have met otherwise.
SGA co-president Julia Nevison, a graduate student in health policy and management, volunteered at the Art Therapy Institute, helping to pack more than 350 art supply kits as a part of art therapy provided to Carrboro and Durham public schools.
“Many public health interventions are provided by community-based organizations that rely on their volunteers, so it was very impactful to the community that we were able to, cumulatively, provide 24 hours’ worth of labor in just half a day’s work,” Nevison said. “I think it was also an opportunity for many of us to explore public health approaches outside of our own disciplines and see how our various disciplines may intersect.”
Some participating organizations were new discoveries for students. Suzannah Pazdan, also in the nutrition MPH program, worked at Edible Campus — a community garden in the heart of campus — where students helped plant, mulch and take care of the produce. Participating in Gillings Day of Service introduced her to a hidden gem on campus that she might not have unearthed otherwise.
“From a public health standpoint, I believe it was beneficial because the food that Edible Campus produces goes to the on-campus food pantry, which then helps those in the community who may be food insecure,” Pazdan said. “Edible Campus is helping those who are food insecure have access to healthy, ethically grown produce, which can be hard to come by. It was an absolutely incredible experience, and I am so grateful to have been placed there!”
Work with Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation gave students an environmental perspective on public health. SGA events coordinator Maya Hoon, a graduate student in environmental sciences and engineering, also helped to plan the Day of Service. She worked at the skateboard park in Homestead Park, moving lumber, picking up trash and pulling weeds. It was valuable work for Hoon, who recognized that “maintaining a clean and sanitary environment reduces the spread of bacteria and human exposure. There were many wrappers, water bottles and other food-related trash in the skate park, and many children seem to spend extended periods of time there. We helped to keep a well-used park pristine and clean so that it may be comfortably enjoyed by the public.”
The response from participating students has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Prass, Many expressed a desire to do a Day of Service every semester.
“For now, we are keeping it to once a year,” she said. “We are sending information to students who want to continue volunteering on their own, especially because a lot of them have just moved to the community. It will give them a great opportunity to create a bond with residents and engage with local organizations at their own pace.”