Ashley and Briana Dawson share highlights from their undergraduate experience before becoming Master of Public Health students at Mason.
Sisters Ashley and Briana Dawson have been helping others improve their health since they were in high school. With their dance studio business, the twins assist the youth in their community to exercise, socialize, and adopt healthy lifestyles with chances to compete and participate in events across the DMV area. Their love for helping others did not diminish during their undergraduate career at Mason. As May 2022 graduates, they share highlights from their experience in the Bachelor of Community Health program, including opportunities that allowed them to help community members around the globe overcome health obstacles through nonprofit organizations.
While excelling in their program and as student-athletes with Mason Cheer and members of the Honors College, the sisters pursued opportunities to gain hands-on experience working with communities across the nation through ElevateHER, a Maryland nonprofit organization with a focus on improving community health.
Gaining Real-World Experience in Public Health
Working with ElevateHER, Ashley and Briana use the skills they learned throughout undergrad in real-world situations. As a community health worker, Ashley worked with underserved communities on health campaigns, such as It's Worth a Shot, a campaign designated to educate others on the COVID-19 vaccine. In this role, she went door-to-door to answer questions, share insight, and provide guidance on immunization.
"I explained how the vaccine was developed, its purpose, and preventative measures they can take to avoid COVID. I learned that communication is so important," Ashley said. "Many of the residents had never been vaccinated, so building a rapport with them and educating them in a way that wasn't hassling was great."
Throughout her time at ElevateHER, Ashley also gained experience as a health behavior analyst and later as a funding and development specialist. Her current role allows her to research, write, and apply for grant funding, such as the $32,000 she helped the nonprofit gain for a diabetes prevention program.
Briana manages its social media channels as the community health campaign and events manager. She creates health campaigns consisting of tailored educational messaging, press releases, and webinars to help others gain insight into health disparities and tools for overcoming health concerns.
In partnership with the Morehouse College of Medicine and the National COVID Resiliency Network, Briana created and organized the webinar series, "COVID-19: What Do We Really Know," to educate others on the latest information regarding COVID-19.
"At first, we were focusing on COVID and how there was vaccine hesitancy," said Briana. "Now we are shifting gears into more mental health topics. Recently, we had a live stream webinar about Black youth mental health, how parents can talk to their kids and give them strategies and resources."
With a mission to help educate others on public health through new avenues like social media, the sisters became involved with American Women for International Understanding (AWIU) to provide educational material on Rwanda Children. This organization provides shelter, education, medical care, and support to at-risk children in Rwanda. The sisters created a YouTube video for the AWIU that explains the mission of Rwanda Children to raise awareness and gain funding for the organization.
Engaging in Health Communication Research
The twins' nonprofit work gained attention from Jennifer Warren, assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who taught Ashley and Briana in a health communication course. Warren invited the sisters to work on two research projects. The first examined the effect of Alzheimer's disease on African American communities.
"We were looking for the impact of adversity and how that makes African Americans more susceptible to cognitive dysfunction as they age. Alzheimer's and dementia are more common in African American populations, so we want to discover what is causing this health disparity," said Ashley. "We had already learned that Black communities are less likely to donate their bodies to science. Therefore, there is already less information on their brains. So, we wanted to learn whether it was a predisposing condition, genetic, brought on by stress or racism, and so on."
Continuing their dedication to public health, Ashley and Briana pursued another research opportunity with Warren called the Black Women's Resiliency Project. In this project, Ashley and Briana look at how Black women are labeled resilient when facing adversity.
"A lot of people refer to resilience as bouncing back, but we want to dive even further and not just think of this stereotypical phrase of 'the strong Black woman,'" Briana said. "We want to learn how they cope, how they heal and continue on, what strategies they are using, and determine if resilience is more so a process."
From these projects, Ashley and Briana learned how health communication theories relate to their community health coursework and can strengthen their goals of being public health consultants while opening the doors for new opportunities.
Making an Impact at Mason
From the beginning of their undergraduate careers, the twins pursued new avenues to strengthen themselves as public health professionals, which resulted in the sisters being honored with many awards for their achievements, including the induction into the Delta Omega Public Health Honorary Society.
Now that they achieved their undergraduate degrees, the sisters look forward to obtaining Master of Public Health degrees at Mason to prepare themselves to help communities around the globe as public health consultants.