Global Public Health Major Thrives On Dominican Experience

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught Global Public Health major Gabriellah Agar ’21 a tremendous life lesson in transforming challenges into opportunities.

Last spring, everything was falling into place for the rising senior. Gabriellah was preparing to study in Costa Rica with faculty mentor Dr. Brett Bayles and a team of Dominican undergraduate students. There they would focus on Planetary Health, examining the spread of disease in connection with climate change.

A manuscript by Dr. Bayles examining the role of agriculture, indigenous territories, and protected areas in Costa Rica had just been published in The Lancet Global Health, and Gabriellah was listed as a co-author. This was prodigious accomplishment for an undergraduate, and she was looking forward to visiting the areas she had studied from afar.

Gabriellah also had landed a spring internship with Marin County Health and Human Services, working as a social media intern for the Community Health and Prevention Department’s RxSafe Marin coalition. This allowed her to combine her analytical skills with a growing interest in graphic design. She enjoyed brainstorming campaign ideas with her supervisors, analyzing research, and selecting images in order to translate important information into compelling visuals. The internship led her to consider a career in public health marketing and communications.

These were exactly the experiences the Gabriellah, who attended Sheldon High School in Sacramento, had hoped for when she selected Dominican.

“I had always expected to go to a large school and had not even considered a small, private university,” she recalls.

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Being accepted into the Torch Student Success Program, a leadership development program created by the University to support first-generation college students, and being offered a Dominican scholarship changed her mind. She also recognized the benefits of forming relationships with professors  – something that is much harder to do at a large university.

“I was so impressed that undergraduates were able to do research with their professors. I realized how important it would be to get to know your professors and to create a relationship with them, especially when it comes to asking for letters of reference for graduate school.”

In March, Marin’s shelter-in-place ordinance moved Gabriellah’s coursework and internship online. While she quickly adjusted, she missed the in-person interaction with professors, mentors, and classmates in the School of Health and Natural Sciences. The fact that her professors made themselves available to help students adapt to the new environment was a comfort, but she admits to “many hours worrying about how things were going to work out.”

Being a Global Public Health major during an international pandemic, however, did present Gabriellah with timely content. For her Health Research Methods class, she interviewed 10 people to find out how the stay-at-home order had affected them. She then used her skills from her coding class and created a website focused on the mental health aspect of the pandemic.

"Gabriellah has really embraced the global public health philosophy at DU. Collaborating with students who are passionate about an issue and eager to apply what they’ve learned in class is also a real treat for faculty," Dr. Bayles says. "It’s really a win-win because not only do the students benefit from real life applied research experience, but it also brings fresh perspectives and a vitalizing energy to projects.  I think that watching students like her use the planetary health paradigm to improve our understanding of pandemics should bring us all a sense of hope. Viruses are inevitable, but pandemic disasters don't need to be. The more students like Gabriellah join this cause, the more likely we are to realize this.

Once it became evident that traveling to Costa Rica was not going to be possible, Gabriellah quickly developed a Plan B for the summer.  She started working on a digital marketing certification from Google. Then, when Dominican announced a series of free one-unit summer courses, she enrolled in two that fit perfectly with her academic and career goals: A planetary health course focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and a graphic design course titled “The Imagery of Social Media.” 

This summer experience not only solidified Gabriellah’s interest in pursuing a career in public health marketing and communications, but also inspired her to design an informational poster about the health benefits of mask wearing that has caught the attention of the state’s Department of Public Health.

Her Planetary Health assignment was to find myths and conspiracy theories around COVID-19 and to debunk them with a research article. Meanwhile, her graphic design professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Education taught her how design could convey important information in a way that would make a strong impact.

“My graphic design professor said that we are not only content designers, but also culture setters, and that message really appealed to me,” she recalls. “I knew then that I wanted to create a poster that was based on research but that also would be able to use the power of social media to convey the seriousness of what’s going on.”

Gabriellah spent hours studying the growing body of research about the pandemic while developing an image that would deliver an important health and safety message.

“While we are going through a pandemic, we are also experiencing an infodemic where the spread of misinformation is quicker and faster than the spread of disease, and ultimately can affect one's health negatively,” Gabriellah says. “I wanted to create a poster that was based on research about how to lower your risk and protect others.”

Gabriellah reached out to her peer network to start promoting the poster on social media. Her work received a strong positive reaction when it appeared on the Associated Students of Dominican University (ASDU) Instagram page. She also sent a copy of the poster to the California Department of Public Health and received a note back from the agency’s deputy director, praising the work and noting it was being shared with colleagues in the department.

For her capstone project, Gabriellah plans to continue to focus on translating and transcribing articles in ways to make the information easier for the general public to understand. This will allow her to draw on skills she gained throughout her time at Dominican, including data analytics, coding, leadership, and graphic design.

She also feels prepared for her senior year.

“After last semester, I really realized that my professors were there for me. This has made me feel much more comfortable about the fall,” she notes. “This year I’m really being independent. I’m living in my own place and I’m ready to make an extra push my senior year. I am going to go after my dreams. This is my time and I’m going to use the many resources available to me to make that happen.”

 

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