Still Helping Others

By Carol Olechowski

Robert K. Watts

As social worker, U.S. Army Reserve officer, director of Schenectady Carver Community Health Center, and chief health planner at the New York State Department of Health, “Renaissance man” Robert K. Watts touched countless lives, remembers his good friend, UAlbany School of Public Health (SPH) Professor Dwight C. Williams. Four years after his death, he continues to help others through the Robert K. Watts Trust, which provided $48,000 to SPH’s Northeast Public Health Leadership Institute (NEPHLI), founded and directed by Williams, and the school’s undergraduate public-health major.   

The bequest underscored Watts’ conviction that the programs “were worthy of recognition and very well done,” says Williams, who also directs the undergraduate major. “Education and upward mobility were dear to his heart.”

Both programs focus on workforce development. NEPHLI, which received $32,000 of the funding, “provides leadership-development training for public-health professionals in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. It has graduated about 470 individuals,” Williams explains. Institute retreats and a workshop encompass about 56 hours of learning that emphasizes the development of leadership skills through modeling, inspiration, risk-taking, shared responsibility, and employee recognition.

A $16,000 gift to the undergraduate public-health program supports adjunct faculty – “primarily doctoral students with a particular interest in teaching,” says Williams. “Many of our graduates go on to medical school; some go into physical or occupational therapy; and some earn the master’s in public health degree.”

Shane Ryan, B.S.’10, is an example of those assisted by such support. A human-biology major, Ryan “took as many public-health classes as I could” to complete a minor. His studies opened the way for Ryan to conduct research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study. In addition, he participated in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Public Health Associate Program (PHAP) in Pueblo, Colo., where he has also served as a regional epidemiologist. Ryan is now working toward a physician-assistant degree in response to “a strong calling for underserved and rural areas.”  

Robert K. Watts

Robert K. Watts

Prior to enrolling at UAlbany, Ryan says, “I really had no idea what public health was. Professor Williams was great; he presented the information well and explained why public health is so important. Before, I wanted to be a physician and do patient care, but my time in the classroom brought me into the world of research and public-health practice. I learned how important looking at the health of the population can be.” 

Nerissa George, B.S.’14, begins graduate school at UAlbany this fall. The 21-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native will pursue an M.P.H. with a concentration in health policy and management.  

As a professional public-health practitioner, George intends “to be part of the small group of game changers who will be offering quality health services at an affordable price.” She is well prepared for the challenge; at UAlbany “each of my classes required me to think critically and work hard.” 

George appreciates the Watts Trust’s support for the undergraduate public-health major. At SPH, “students learn to use all of the resources offered and are encouraged to attain their highest potential. We apply the material learned in class to the real world. I am proud that I had the opportunity to attain a profound level of education at 
the University.”      

Migdalia Morel, B.S.’13, majored in interdisciplinary studies in public health with a minor in anthropology. As a health coach at the Bronx, N.Y.-based Institute for Family Health at Walton Family Health Center, she assists diabetic patients in gaining control of their illness through nutrition counseling and other services. Morel is interested in pursuing an M.P.H. in either healthcare management or nutrition. 

Courses, internships and volunteer opportunities through SPH’s undergraduate program, notes Morel, “were very effective in helping me realize my career and educational aspirations.” She adds: “For an internship at the New York State Department of Health, I worked with an epidemiologist, tracing outbreaks of food-borne illness. As a volunteer for the Mental Health Association of New York State, I worked for an organization that helps improve the lives of a population that is sometimes overlooked or underserved. Through those experiences, I discovered that it is my passion to help others improve their quality of life.”