As a senior biochemistry major and biology minor, MiLana Wiltshire spends much of her time in one of Claflin University's labs working with various organisms. This work requires that she be impersonal, detached, and objective. However, after participating in an emergency preparedness program, Wiltshire sees things differently.
"In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), we think clinically," she said. "But now I know how to be flexible and remember that when you are working during a disaster, you realize you are working with people. They want to be safe, but you have to consider their feelings and emotions, as well."
Wiltshire and 49 other Claflin students underwent training for the South Carolina Public Health Reserve Corps through the SC Public Health Preparedness Student Corps (SCPHPSC). The program prepares medical, behavioral health, and non-medical volunteers to assist communities during disasters, public health emergencies, and health disparities.
Claflin, Benedict College, Coastal Carolina University, and Francis Marion University are part of a $2.7 million grant that Clemson University received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The grant, in collaboration with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), is designed to prepare a diverse group of students prepared to volunteer and assist communities during various emergencies. Although they are training on a college campus, the goal is that this network of students will expand across the state and be ready to assist when necessary.
Each university will train at least 100 students during the two years of the grant. Claflin's Department of Biology received more than $500,000 to implement the program. Dr. Gloria McCutcheon, a professor, and chair of the department is the principal investigator. Ms. Taylor Goodwin is the program coordinator. Other biology department faculty supporting the grant are Dr. Samina Assanie-Shivji, Dr. Tantiana Burns, Dr. Ross Johnson, and Dr. Randall Harris.
Dr. McCutcheon and Ms. Goodwin are encouraging students from various majors to take an active role in the program since it launched in April. At least 20 majors are represented in the SCPHPSC at Claflin.
"Public health spans the gamut," McCutcheon said. "We are examining natural and man-made disasters. And because there are workforce shortages in this area, we want to do our part to expand resources that communities can utilize when there is a disaster. This program covers a wide range of issues related to public health.”
COVID-19 helped illustrate the gaps and disparities in the nation's health care system. It also emphasized how critical having connections with and inside various communities are when it comes to the nation's health.
"There are so many health equity issues, and this program allows us to work in the communities where our students reside," she said.
The program prepares students to assist with behavioral health self-care, mental health, health equity, emergency management, and emerging infectious diseases. They also learn how to respond to natural disasters and global/transcultural health issues. Claflin students also participated in an active school shooter demonstration.
"With everything happening around the country, we all need to be more aware and prepared," McCutcheon said. "We helped the students see how school shootings are related to public health. We need to be ready to mobilize against these various threats."
Participants receive a stipend and after they complete the training sessions through modules and evening activities led by experts in the field, they can qualify for certification in contact tracing. The students are also encouraged to sign up for the Medical Reserve Corps through the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
"These are valuable experiences the students can add to their resumes," McCutcheon said. "They will leave the program equipped with knowledge and skills that will allow them to contribute to improving health outcomes in their respective communities. This program will promote Workforce Development.”
McCutcheon and Goodwin said they received favorable responses from the 50 students who began the first session last spring. The students are part of Claflin's Public Health Student Alliance.
"They use this training as part of their community service requirement," McCutcheon said. “The students want to give back to their communities, and this program provides them an opportunity to do that."
Wiltshire is president of the Claflin’s Public Health Student Alliance. She hails from Jacksonville, Fla. She knows the importance of being prepared for natural disasters.
"No matter where I live, I will be better prepared to help myself, my family, and my community," Wiltshire said. "I can share what I have learned and offer the care and assistance they will need – in any emergency."