Marsha Davis, associate dean for outreach and engagement in the College of Public Health, believes that community engagement is essential for the university’s core functions of teaching, research and service-especially when it comes to Georgia’s public health.
Since joining UGA in 2006, Davis has worked diligently to establish lasting partnerships with off-campus communities and provide meaningful opportunities for UGA students and faculty to extend their educational and research programs through various public health initiatives.
In recognition of these efforts, Davis has been named the 2014 recipient of the Engaged Scholar Award, presented annually by the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach. Initiated in 2008, this award recognizes a full-time, tenured faculty member for significant contributions in public service, outreach and community engagement.
“Marsha has been a catalyst for identifying and developing programs and projects that employ the mutual resources and interest of the university and the populations it serves,” said Phillip Williams, dean of the public health college. “As a result, communities have more clarity about the public health issues they are facing and the assets they possess that can address those issues. They now have real hope that strategic needs can be met over time.”
Davis knows that the public health issues facing the state are plentiful. Georgia ranks among America’s unhealthiest states, with high rates of obesity, smoking and chronic disease, she said.
“It is our responsibility at UGA to bring higher education resources to help solve these challenges and to partner with communities who also have many strengths and resources. Together we can make Georgia strong,” Davis said.
Davis also serves as director of the Georgia Public Health Training Center in the public health college. The center draws on faculty expertise from UGA’s Colleges of Public Health, Education, Social Work and Family and Consumer Sciences, along with experience from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development and the infrastructure of the Archway Partnership to deliver comprehensive education and training for public health workers statewide.
“Working with PSO units and schools and colleges across campus has significantly accelerated and expanded my own and the college’s research, service and teaching activities,” Davis said. “Working with Archway, in particular, has provided such an extraordinary opportunity for me to conduct research, work directly with communities on their identified health needs and build outreach through CPH.”
Beginning in 2009, Davis worked with the local Archway Professional in Colquitt County on the Healthy Colquitt Coalition. In 2011, she obtained a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture that supports a five-year community-based childhood obesity prevention program.
“We have found that programs and policies developed directly with the community are more successfully implemented, are more effective and are far more sustainable,” she said. “We will not see a change in Georgia’s health rankings unless all Georgia communities are engaged in improving the public’s health.”
Through this approach, Davis expects to see many long-term benefits for UGA, the communities and the body of knowledge focused on addressing major public health issues.
In 2012, in support of Gov. Nathan Deal’s School Health and Physical Education Initiative and at the request of the Georgia Department of Public Health, Davis partnered with the Vinson Institute of Government to conduct a strategic planning session with key agencies in Georgia to develop a plan for decreasing childhood obesity by 2015. She secured internal funding from UGA’s Obesity Initiative to assess awareness, barriers, available resources and additional policy initiatives. The study began in November.
Davis also actively engages CPH students in a number of public health projects around the state, including a federally qualified health center in Clayton County, a healthy workforce initiative in Sumter County, childhood obesity prevention in Habersham County, HIV/AIDS needs assessments in Northeast Georgia and more.
“I believe students’ overall experiences have been enhanced through service-learning projects and internships in communities around the state,” Davis said. “Our students are graduating with a stronger knowledge and experiential skill base as they enter the public health workforce.”
Davis also has seen positive impacts on faculty research within the CPH.
“External grant funding to faculty has increased because of partnerships with communities,” she said. “Funders are looking for research projects that will be sustained in communities after the research ends and the research dollars are spent.”