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Arnold School of Public Health


Arnold School mourns the passing of HPEB doctoral student Chris Aluah

May 26, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

The Arnold School of Public Health was devastated this spring when Doctor of Philosophy candidate Christopher Peter Aluah passed away due to a chronic condition that caused health challenges over the last year. Aluah earned dual masters’ degrees in social work and public health at the University of South Carolina before entering the doctoral program in the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB). His experience in using community theatre to address health issues in Ghana linked him with former Assistant Professor Deborah Billings, who served as his practicum adviser and subsequently became his adviser in HPEB. “Chris was engaged with his work and the world in unique ways, and he wanted to use his experiences to explore the impact of stigma on people’s health and well-being. He understood the power of theatre and used that in his doctoral work,” Billings says. Associate Professor Alyssa Robillard, Aluah’s adviser and dissertation chair, was pleased to have the opportunity to work with him. Robillard says, “not only was I excited about his research topic, courtesy stigma among HIV care professionals, but I was also excited about his unique methodology incorporating the use of theatre in his work.”

Aluah was very serious about his studies—a fact reiterated by his classmates and friends. Seul Ki Choi, a classmate who entered the program with Aluah described him as “a good friend, a smart student, and a passionate scholar.” Another classmate, Jessica Escobar, agrees. “Chris was dedicated to completing his work to the best of his ability,” she says. “He always dressed professionally, which spoke to how important his work was to him.”

Aluah’s dedication paid off—he received a SPARC (Support to Promote Advancement of Research and Creativity) graduate research grant and was named a Research Fellow by USC’s Institute for African-American Research for his dissertation research, “Stigmatizing the ‘Wise’: Perceptions and Experiences of Courtesy Stigma among African-Americans Working with People Living with HIV/AIDS in Richland County.”

His mentors describe him as an incredibly hard-working, creative and dedicated student who sacrificed much to earn the education he knew was necessary to moving public health in Ghana to new levels. “He was always crystal clear about his commitment to return to Ghana and to his extended family and community—to make a difference in his country,” notes Billings.

“Although he was here in the U.S. without his immediate family, he built a truly global extended family because of his remarkable impact on the communities he touched,” Robillard says. Nina Nelson, a fellow international graduate research assistant who supported Aluah shortly after he arrived in the U.S. reflects on him as a “friend, warrior and teacher.”  He was a “warrior who fought his illness until the very end with great courage and grace,” Nelson says. “He had a colossal spirit and a mammoth heart,” says Shaun Owens, a graduate of HPEB.

Robillard was looking forward to honoring Aluah at his graduation ceremony in May. “Instead, we celebrate the life he lived while he was here and mourn the loss of all that he could have done—of all he could have become,” she says. “I will miss him deeply and I’ll remember with great fondness our conversations about his plans for returning to Ghana, being with his family again and engaging in social change,” reflects Billings. “We must all pay tribute to his strength, clarity and sense of humor, which he maintained until his passing despite many health-related challenges.” For their part, Robillard and Billings are committed to making his important work available to the world through publications.

Aluah’s “family” at the College of Social Work believed he could have made a major impact upon his return to Ghana. “Some thought he could have been the next Minister of Health,” says Assistant to the Dean Deborah Duvall. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to see his next steps, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have had him in my life.” One of his more recent goals, according to classmateCaroline Bergeron, was to be an advocate against stigma, especially given his own personal experiences.

Aluah was originally from Navrongo, Upper East Region, Ghana. He leaves behind his wife, three children and an extended family in Ghana. Aluah earned his three-year diploma in Theatre and Arts and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and theater Arts from the University of Ghana. He had experience as a teacher and worked with the Navrongo Health Research Center. Aluah also helped co-found Youth Harvest Foundation in Ghana and served as senior adviser of an effort to assist farming cooperatives with the production of organic peanuts (Sunuga Project).

He arrived at the University of South Carolina in 2008 to complete dual masters’ degrees in social work and public health. While at USC, Aluah joined Global Voice to advocate for the improvement of services for international students. He co-founded and served as president for the Pan-African Student Association, an organization that fosters unity among USC students from Africa.

Local memorial services were held on campus (Rutledge Chapel) and at Shandon Baptist Church on March 15. A memorial fund has been established to support the educational pursuits of Aluah’s three children, ages 6, 8 and 13.  For more information, please contact Deborah Billings as DBillings08@gmail.com.