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BSPH Degree Prepares LaKristie Davis to Address Health Disparities and Empower Her Community

LaKristie Davis is on a mission to change lives.UTA BSPH graduate in LaKristie Davis

She works as a public health educator for Parkland Health, a large hospital and clinic system in Dallas, Texas. Davis teaches sexual and reproductive health at Oak West Women’s Health Center and does outreach support for 10 additional women’s health centers across the city. It’s a job she loves, and one that gives her ample opportunity to highlight her favorite topic of conversation: public health.

“I really want people to be as excited about public health as I am,” she confided, noting that she takes a little teasing for being so passionate about her work. “My friends are like, ‘You always find a way to relate public health to something,'” she said, responding, “[I do] because it’s related to everything!”

Davis was originally on a different career path in healthcare. She became a certified pharmacy technician while earning her associate degree in science from El Centro College. After graduating in 2013, she had plans to become a pharmacist. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, her focus changed. She enrolled in the online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program at The University of Texas at Arlington to study epidemiology, eventually transitioning to minority and community health.

“I started researching schools, and that’s when I found the UTA online program, which worked perfectly for me because I was working full time,” she remembered. “I could do it on my own time; I had flexibility.”

Davis was employed in health outreach and contact tracing while earning her degree and says she was impressed by the BSPH faculty’s depth of experience in public health. “They had the research knowledge in addition to the educational knowledge and the workplace knowledge,” she said. “So, if we needed any kind of advice, we were able to go to them.”

Davis also liked being able to tailor her studies to her interests, taking classes in communication, public policy, informatics and other areas. She graduated in 2022.

“All the knowledge I’ve gained I’m able to take to different areas of healthcare or community health,” she said. “I’m able to take these skills and apply them to, really, anything.”

Caring for Underserved Communities

When Davis began taking BSPH classes, she wasn’t surprised to learn that some communities have higher rates of disease, disability and mortality than others. Growing up in Oak Cliff, a part of Dallas where health disparities are common, she had seen evidence of that all her life.

“I came from the low-income area,” she said of her neighborhood. “We experience a lot of difficulty with access to healthcare.” While lack of insurance coverage is often a problem for residents, Davis emphasizes that it’s not the only issue resulting in poor health, chronic illness or delayed screening and treatment. She’s seen how the social determinants of health she studied at UTA impact people in real time, including financial and food insecurity.

Her Parkland clinic and its programs serve the residents of Oak Cliff, where she still lives. As a public health educator, she now works to address a range of circumstances that influence wellness in the local population.

“Many adults here don’t have a car,” she explained, or can’t afford high gas prices. These residents rely on city buses for transportation, and where bus routes don’t run, mobility is even more limited.

Having few grocery stores in the area also limits access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy food, Davis reports, with fast-food restaurants filling the gap. “Sometimes, that’s people’s only choice,” she said.

Lack of trust in healthcare professionals due to negative experiences, marginalization or misinformation can be common in underserved communities as well, Davis suggests, impacting whether residents seek care or assistance.

“A lot of what we do as public health workers, especially with minority health, is try to identify what kind of past trauma has happened so we can understand how it relates to the current things people are going through,” she acknowledged. “Learning about people’s past to learn about their present.”

Davis says lessons she learned in the BSPH program continue to help her build the relationships and inclusive practices that create trust in healthcare services.

“The program taught me a great deal about cultural competency and humility,” she said. “This encouraged me to always engage in continuous learning about the people within the community and stay open to feedback.”

Learning, Listening and Connecting

Studying online gave Davis the breathing room she needed on busy days, without the constraint of planning her life around in-person classes. “I didn’t feel limited,” she said. “If I traveled, I was able to carry school with me, so that was always great.”

In fact, she found learning online so convenient that completing assignments on the go became second nature. “One time I was in line for a concert, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I need to respond to people on my discussion board,'” she recalled. “I was able to do it on my mobile phone while I was in line waiting to get in.”

In addition to strong support from professors and classmates, UTA’s Canvas mobile app helped her stay on track. “Even though I’m pretty good about time management, you know, sometimes we’re human,” she smiled. “Getting those reminders always helped me remember what’s due, when it’s due and what I needed to do.”

Davis says that BSPH courses involving research were among her favorites. She enjoyed collecting and analyzing data on health disparities and interviewing prominent figures in public health.

She spoke with Dr. Janine Austin Clayton and Dr. Chyren Hunter from the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as Dr. Adrienne Smith from the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Dr. Nathan Stinson Jr., Director of the NIH Division of Community Health and Population Science, gave her some advice that changed her mind about what it means to be an advocate. “[He] told me to just listen to the community,” she remembered.  “The community knows best. Even though, yes, you have this education, yes, you’ve got this expertise in a certain particular area, you don’t know what the people need more than the people themselves.”

The conversation helped Davis embrace the idea of listening before deciding what a person before her may need or offering them resources. “It’s more of a closed-mouth-open-ears situation whenever I’m going out into the community,” she confirmed.

She feels her work is better for the knowledge and that her career will also benefit from the networking opportunities interviews provided. “Getting feedback from professionals who’ve been in the field for years and years, it’s always helpful,” she said. “And then making those connections and building those relationships with them.”

Giving Back Through Education

In retrospect, Davis has realized how unique her BSPH experience was at UTA compared to that of her peers studying for the degree elsewhere.

“Talking with other students that were in other programs—whether accelerated online or on campus—our professors had more, I guess I would say, quality time with us,” she shared. “They spent more time invested in our careers, both within the program and once we graduated.”

She most appreciates that professors stressed hands-on learning to prepare students for the job market. “They were very good about getting us internships or any kind of additional experience we needed.” she said, adding that she also continues to rely on the best practices she learned from BSPH courses. “Anytime my coworker and I come across a problem, I’m quoting something that I got from my class or from a textbook,” she affirmed.

Davis believes the program works as well for career changers as it does for students with experience in health or related fields. “A lot of my classmates didn’t come from healthcare backgrounds,” she pointed out. “Some of them worked in insurance companies. Some of them worked at restaurants. I didn’t come from public health either.”

Her classmates have gone on to graduate school in ophthalmology or medicine, to work in epidemiology, infection prevention or to other fields. “We’re kind of all over the board,” she laughed. “Getting my degree helped me to be able to become a public health educator, which will later help me to become a professor.”

Davis earned her master’s in public health at UTA in 2023, and she is moving on to doctoral study next, focusing on public policy and administration. Teaching at the college level is her long-term goal. It’s just another way she wants to serve and get new generations excited about public health.

“I just love my BSPH program so much,” she beamed, noting the foundation it’s given her to build a career. “I want to be able to provide other students, other generations, with that same knowledge.”

Learn more about The University of Texas at Arlington online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program. 

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