Alumna Ashley Vaughn, MPH ’21, graduated from the University of Idaho with bachelor’s degrees in science and Spanish. A McNair Scholar, she knew she would attend graduate school, but wasn’t sure where her path would lead. Through Teach for America, she began teaching high school science on the north side of Philadelphia in 2013.
Even though education was not her primary path, she fell in love with teaching, and her passion took her from Philadelphia to classrooms in Passaic, N.J., and Detroit, Mich. While teaching, she discovered another passion – public health, which led her to Oregon State.
While earning her master’s degree in public health (MPH), she completed a fellowship with Portland State University’s Center for Public Service and was offered an internship with the Oregon Health Authority’s HIT Commons, where she was promoted to a data analyst and health communications specialist. Ashley has also served as a research assistant with HPbeaVs to promote HPV vaccination among college students, and facilitated cohort-based learning groups and curriculum development as an OSU Wellness Agent Mentor, work that earned her a student leader award from OSU’s Hattie Redmond Women and Gender Center.
“… It felt like this position was made just for me,” she says of her new role as a CPHHS public health instructor. “Not only do I get to continue working within public health, I also get to teach! Having the opportunity to help develop the future public health workforce by combining two of my passions — teaching and public health — seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
What made you decide to get into this field? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?
Education creates opportunities for better health, but poor health can put education at risk. During my time teaching, I saw firsthand how the social determinants of health —racism, safe housing, transportation and access to food to name a few — directly impacted the lives of my students and classroom. After one of my students was killed, I found myself desperate to do more. A friend invited me to attend a lecture with her at the University of Michigan, where I first learned about the social determinants of health and community participatory research.
Right now, during the pandemic, this seems wild, but before that lecture I had never heard of public health as a career path. There was an immediate connection between what I had seen in my classrooms and opportunities to intervene through public health interventions. After that, I started researching MPH programs and I knew I had found my path. Eventually, I landed on the HPHB program here at OSU, where I received my MPH.
To me, public health offers social justice and advocacy in action. I can be part of the solution to the systemic barriers to health and well-being by pursuing a career addressing some of the upstream factors that impacted me and my classroom.
What do you love about your field? What energizes you?
As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, those working in public health are often at the intersection of many important issues in society. Where there is struggle, lies the opportunity for change. The thing I love most about public health is that we can’t do this work alone. While we each have a role to play, we must be in community with one another for solutions to happen. Working with students to understand what they want their role to be and help them master some of the skills necessary to achieve that role both energizes me and brings me hope.
Why did you choose to work at the CPHHS at Oregon State?
When the opportunity to become an instructor arose, it felt like this position was made just for me. Not only do I get to continue working within public health, I also get to teach! Having the opportunity to help develop the future public health workforce by combining two of my passions — teaching and public health — seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.
Additionally, as a graduate student in health promotion and health behavior, I received incredible mentorship from faculty and staff. I’m grateful to join a team that is dedicated to student success and to pay some of the guidance that I received forward.
What’s the best part about your work?
As an instructor, working with students is the best part about this work. The world can feel so heavy, but students always seem to be bringing fresh perspectives that inspire me to keep moving forward.
As a public health professional, working with people across many different sectors —housing, education, primary care, social work and health information technology — to come up with solutions is the best part about the work.
What are you most proud of in your work so far?
No one in my family has had the opportunity to attend an institution of higher education before. Not only did I attend as an undergraduate and graduate student, but I now am also an educator! My family sacrificed so much for me to be in this position; no one gets to where they are alone. While there are certainly many things that I am proud of in my work as a public health professional, I’m most proud to be here. My story and experiences as a low-income, first-generation student are important and valuable to the work that we do in public health and academia. I’m proud to share this perspective with students and have them share their perspectives with me as we develop the next generation of public health professionals, together.
Additionally, the affirmation that my skills as an educator translated to public health and academia was incredibly important. As a public health professional, my ability to organize, run focus groups, facilitate meetings, give presentations and manage complicated projects all stem back to skills that I had to use daily as a high school teacher. My path to public health has been anything but linear. But the fact that I’ve been able to transition to public health, while also continuing to apply the skills that I’ve learned throughout both of my careers is something that I’m proud of.
How do you strive to affect people’s lives with your work?
“If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of 10 years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” Confucius
What is one surprising thing about you that not many people know?
I really love to play soccer, but I don’t really love to watch it. I’ve been playing soccer since I was 4. No matter where I have lived or traveled, soccer has provided an avenue for community and friendships.
What are your favorite activities outside of work?
I love to run, even though I’m slow and I have to work hard at it. I ran my first marathon this past year, which felt like a big accomplishment for me. I also love to garden and go camping. Being new to Oregon, it’s incredible to live in a place where the opportunities to garden and camp are endless! We also recently added a new Australian shepherd puppy named Rouie to the mix. She teaches me patience and reminds me that rest is just as important as work.
Does public health sound like it might be the right fit for you? If so, visit our website to learn more.