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Arnold School of Public Health

Master of public health alumna gives back to UofSC for six years before returning to graduate school

October 3, 2019 | Erin Bluvas,

Bridgewater, Virginia native, Jacqueline Knight Wilt, was already halfway to a career in public health when she was undergrad at James Madison University – she just didn’t know it yet. Knight Wilt was majoring in psychology and minoring in substance abuse intervention when she first encountered the field.

“I’ve always had a passion for helping others be their best self and making the world a better place for the benefit of all,” she says. “This was highly evident during undergraduate study when I actively engaged as a peer educator for the student health center, studied psychology and sociology abroad in Ghana, completed courses, and served as a research assistant in a health psychology lab.”

Knight Wilt officially crossed the bridge into public health when she chose the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program for her first graduate degree. While researching accredited programs, she learned that the MPH’s core curriculum provided a broad and applicable approach to public health practice including research, needs assessment, program development, and evaluation – culminating in a field-based practicum opportunity to apply these concepts.

Knight Wilt was particularly interested in becoming a health promotion practitioner specializing in college health, and her interest in UofSC was confirmed by her undergraduate university’s health center director who praised USC’s Health Student Health Services office. Knight Wilt connected with the office and ended up amassing a breadth of public health practitioner experiences both inside and outside UofSC during her master’s program. 

During her first year, Knight Wilt utilized her substance abuse background as an intern on the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services Community Action for a Safer Tomorrow Grant. She then applied her knowledge and skills to the benefit of UofSC’s stakeholders by serving as a Substance Abuse Prevention & Education graduate assistant.

When it was time to engage in the practicum that had attracted Knight Wilt to the program in the first place, she completed it at Healthy Carolina Working Well. It was such a great fit that Healthy Carolina offered her a position as UofSC’s Student Health Services Coordinator for Health Carolina Initiatives shortly after her 2013 graduation.

Knight Wilt spent the next six years with the organization, working her way up to assistant director – applying what she learned in her MPH program on a daily basis. Initially serving as a grant coordinator, Knight Wilt was responsible for researching funding opportunities, collaborating with colleagues on submission ideas, writing proposal, creating budgets, submitting applications and managing post award funds and reportable requirements. She continued building on these responsibilities – adding roles such as community organizing to connect stakeholders and build the capacity of the Healthy Carolina Coalition throughout her tenure at UofSC.

“Any graduate of the health promotion, education and behavior program can confirm that this process was direct application of the program planning course content; there is something about reviewing data to identify needs, meeting with stakeholders to create an innovative solution, writing a compelling narrative to persuade funders, and the responsibility of managing budgets that I find exciting and gratifying,” Knight Wilt says. “I leaned on the curriculum from several of the MPH in HPEB core courses in this work to organize community momentum to shape a campus environment that promotes health.”

Her efforts were recognized multiple times with awards from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (2014 Excellence Award: Healthy Carolina Healthy Campus Initiative; 2018 Excellence Award: Mental Health Matters), the American College Health Association (2014 Best Practices Award: Healthy Carolina), the Southern College Health Association (2018 New Professional Award), and Active Minds (2018 Healthy Campus Award).  

Both during and after her program, Knight Wilt connected with Arnold School faculty who provided mentorship and guidance. Graduate director Ken Watkins served as Knight Wilt’s advisor, sharing his own experiences as a health practitioner in higher education and cheering her on when she decided to apply to doctoral programs. Clinical associate professor Kara Montgomery also shared interests in college health and worked closely with Knight Wilt in several Healthy Carolina Initiatives aimed at improving the campus environment for the health and wellness of students, faculty and staff.

Associate professor Sonya Jones’ macro-level approach to improve food systems and nutrition helped broaden Knight Wilt’s perspective to improving community health within higher education systems. Though they met after her graduation, associate professor Andrew Kaczynski’s work also employed a macro-level approach. His research on the built environment through his BEACH Lab led the two to collaborate on campus walkability projects. The lab and the Healthy Carolina office even shared a graduate assistant and co-produced a research paper that is pending publication. This experience further cemented Knight Wilt’s decision to pursue a Ph.D.

Another factor that inspired her to return to graduate school arose during the Arnold School 2017 Vernberg Lecture. “It was Dr. Lawrence Green’s lecture, ‘Getting from Evidence-Based Practice to Practice-Based Evidence’ that solidified my decision to go back to school to bridge a gap I was witnessing between college health promotion and the research field,” say Knight Wilt, who enrolled in a Ph.D. Studies in Social and Behavioral Sciences program at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall. “I plan to continue studying cardiovascular preventative health behaviors of the emerging adult population in order to inform interventions for policy, system and environmental strategies that will promote and sustain health and overall quality of life.”

Looking back on her eight years at UofSC, Knight Wilt aptly summarizes her success by pointing to connections and passion. “Create opportunities for yourself; they don’t just fall into your lap, they’re the product of hard work, making connections, and perseverance so it’s important to be very intentional in making connections and creating opportunities to apply the curriculum outside of the classroom,” says Knight Wilt, who believes she made the most of her time in the MPH program by applying course concepts to her graduate assistantship, volunteer, practicum, and work experiences. “It’s also important to find a career that aligns with your passions. The six years I was employed with Student Health Services was incredible because I authentically loved what I did every day in service to the campus community, and informing the field of college health at the national level.”

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