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A roadmap to success: How public health major Maya Evans prepared for graduate school

Public health major Maya Evans knows about preparation. As a track and field athlete, Maya fine-tuned her athletic abilities to compete at a national level. At the University of South Carolina, she found many ways to purposefully prepare herself to secure a spot into a competitive graduate program.

Next year, Maya will begin her graduate education at an Ivy League school, focusing on school psychology. Her countless service hours and time spent actively involved in research at USC have helped her prepare for this next step—a step that makes perfect sense, if you know where her passion for helping others began.

“In ninth grade, I participated in my first volunteer project. I went with my mom to a domestic violence shelter where I helped with the day care program. I remember there was one child who asked me to help tutor her because she was falling behind in her class. She spoke very little English, and at that time, I didn’t speak any Spanish. I worked with her every day, one-on-one. Seeing the impact I had sparked my interest in youth and education. That’s where it all began.”

It was during her junior year when Maya started to think seriously about graduate school. To prepare, she found many unique opportunities that enabled her to hone her interests and refine the skills she needed to accomplish her goals.

“I found out that I was able to choose two cognates [along with majoring in public health], which was beneficial because it was like having two specialties. I knew I wanted to be in the health field, so I chose psychology and Spanish. I want to help with mental health, and specifically, in Hispanic culture.”

This unique background in public health, psychology and Spanish provided an important foundation when she traveled to San Ramon, Costa Rica as part of the Community Education Project.

By pairing these types of opportunities and multiple hands-on experiences at Carolina, Maya is prepared for the academic rigors of graduate school and her future career.

When did you first begin to think about what you wanted to study?

In my mind, I was initially undecided. When I applied, I chose public health because it offered broad courses that dealt with health care. After taking an introduction to public health course, I knew that I had chosen the right major.

I loved learning about different health concepts and how those concepts apply to different cultures and within different socioeconomic statuses. I knew I was on to something when I continued taking courses that dealt with education and we began creating interventions. Developing interventions was something that I became interested in. I loved being able to create something that directly helps people.

At what point did you start to feel that you were getting the hands-on experience you needed?

The first project I completed was in a health promotions course. We designed interventions for people who had diabetes. Our program encouraged exercise and healthy eating. This was my first experience [with health interventions] as well as working in a team. We had to research many different programs that already existed and modify them to meet our program’s standards.

I have interned at the Boys & Girls Club and the United Way of the Midlands. At the Boys & Girls Club, I helped with their Project Play program. It is a program designed to encourage physical health in lower socioeconomic schools. At the United Way of the Midlands, I was a Community Service Ambassador. I created programming and presentations for high school students focused on cultural diversity and homelessness.

The summer before my senior year, I took an amazing volunteer trip to Costa Rica. I have never been out of the country, much less on a plane. The trip was a result of a scholarship that I won. To apply, I had to create a video describing my volunteer experiences. I was able to conduct interviews with a leadership coach in the Leadership and Service Center and a coordinator from the Team Gamecocks Community Outreach program. It was powerful because it was really the first time I reflected on my volunteer experiences.

I went to San Ramon, Costa Rica with the Community Education Project. This was a community outreach center where kids could go during or after school. It was a safe place for students who lived in the poorest part of the city.

I worked with children whose levels of education varied. Some could hardly read. What was interesting was that many of the students came from the same place, but they were all developing so differently. It made me realize how varied these types of programs must be, especially in the United States.

How has your experience as an Honors student helped to prepare you?

The work I’ve done for my honors thesis prepared me for the challenges of an Ivy League school. Not only were my honors courses rigorous, but they [the Honors College] really encouraged me to challenge myself outside of the classroom, as well. Not only was I challenged with research opportunities, but also to be involved with things like community service. I completed 700 hours of community service. In terms of community service, Columbia, South Carolina offers the ability to serve and gain experience working with different populations.

Through the Leadership and Service Center, I have been a Community Service Ambassador, Impact Leader, Service Saturday leader, and through the athletic department, a member of Team Gamecocks. Many of those experiences were important because I was able to develop professionally. The more I was out in the community; the more I learned how to carry myself professionally and learn what is involved in implementing interventions.

Were you able to relate your Honors thesis to what you want to study in graduate school?

My honors thesis was on community service and the motivations behind volunteering. I wanted to understand what aspects of volunteering keep people continuing to do so. I am also using my research to inform how I might run a future non-profit. I would like to start examining how community service may be used as an intervention for those suffering from mental health issues.

What advice do you have for future Gamecocks?

I spent my first semester trying to see where I would fit in. I realized that I didn’t have to fit in, just defining who I am was enough. Also, students shouldn’t be afraid to step out of their comfort zone because those are some of the most rewarding experiences they’ll have, and these experiences can help prepare them in ways they’d never imagine.