During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jasmine Carmichael ’23 began doing a lot of soul-searching. She had entered Hollins intending to become a pharmacist and had declared a chemistry major with a concentration in biochemistry. Yet, she was alarmed and discouraged by the amount of pandemic misinformation that was circulating around the Internet at that time. She worried about the challenges people could encounter in getting the proper guidance needed to make informed decisions about their healthcare generally, let alone regarding COVID-19.
Partly for that reason, by the second semester of her junior year, Carmichael realized that she was increasingly drawn to the field of public health. However, she wasn’t sure she could change majors so late in her college career. “I was scared,” she admits. “I thought there was no way I was going to graduate on time if I switched to public health.”
Nevertheless, Carmichael reached out to Assistant Professor of Public Health Abubakarr Jalloh to see if he thought she could make it work. “He looked over all the chemistry courses I had taken and said, absolutely, I could do it. I only needed about four more classes. Luckily, a lot of the courses I had already completed could be counted toward a public health major. I was really grateful I had taken them. I love public health and I’m so glad I changed.”
Jalloh praises Carmichaelfor pursuing “a passion for examining public health issues with a social justice/health equity lens. In particular, she has shown tremendous interest and promise in investigating the social determinants of health with a focus on addressing health disparities.”
“One of the things I have noticed since becoming a public health major is that oftentimes, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) people face the worst social determinants,” Carmichael adds. “These are the factors that keep people from being healthy, such as the lack of income, education, and living in poor neighborhoods, and they have such a big influence. Fortunately, social determinants are preventable, and I’m really interested in creating programs that can promote education, training, and access.”
A pivotal moment for Carmichael occurred last fall when she interned with the Roanoke nonprofit organization Total Action for Progress (TAP) and their Homeless Employment and Learning Program (HELP). “Essentially, we addressed the barriers that come with homelessness such as employment, criminal background, and substance abuse. We visited shelters that house pregnant and postpartum women and I got to do health education related to nutrition, self-care, and stress. This was the part of public health I liked.”
The gratification Carmichael received from the experience helped solidify the direction in which she wanted to take her public health major. “I realized how much I enjoyed nonprofit work. Going into those shelters, speaking to those women and hearing their stories, and learning about what they had to face in society and the things that are keeping them from being the healthiest people they could possibly be, that really inspired me to get into that work.”
During January Short Term this year, Carmichael followed up her TAP internship with an independent research project in which she studied the opioid crisis in the Richmond, Virginia, area and its impact on pregnant women, mothers, and families. The project complemented her work as a Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer, in which she spent a month in a program designed to educate pharmacists in Chesterfield County near Richmond about the opioid problem and how they could help. “We were out in the communities talking to pharmacists about monitoring their patients with opioid prescriptions. We provided these pamphlets about how the medication might affect the patient and who they can go to if they have a question or a problem.”
As part of her training for the initiative, Carmichael learned how to administer Narcan, which is used to treat opioid overdoses in emergencies. “I would tell pharmacists to try to convince patients to take Narcan home with them (under Virginia law patients have the option of refusing it), because that could literally be the difference between life and death.”
Even though Carmichael has herself shifted her career plans away from becoming a pharmacist, she earned her certification as a pharmacy technician in December 2020 after completing a challenging nine-month course that culminated in passing a difficult, three-hour exam. “It was hard work,” she recalls. “Not only was I studying for the exam, I also had classes and was involved with extracurriculars. Luckily, I was able to do an online program for my tech work balance that with my in-person classes at Hollins. It was worth it – I love being a pharmacy technician and I’ll have that to fall back on should I ever decide to leave public health.”
Carmichael will begin Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Public Health Program this fall, and she’s also currently in the hiring process for the Public Health Associate Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “First you are referred for a fellowship and then you have to write a personal statement,” she explains. “I just submitted that and am waiting to find out if I get an interview. If they decide to accept me, I would begin at the CDC in October.”
If that occurs, Carmichael is hoping she can take night classes at VCU while fulfilling her fellowship during the day, “but if the CDC sends me to another location such as Alaska, I will likely defer my decision to attend VCU.” In any event, she would like to someday work at the CDC as a public health analyst. “I want to look at those programs and policies that directly affect people’s health and see how we can improve those.” Immediately after graduation this spring, she has an offer to work at a nonprofit organization focusing on maternal and child health.
Carmichael believes she has learned so much over the past four years about embracing the unexpected, both personally and professionally. “When I came here, I had my whole life planned out, but Hollins taught me that my path is not always linear and that you can change your mind and open it to explore new things. It’s okay if the plan you thought you were going to do doesn’t work out that way.”
And what would she cite as her biggest lesson? “I learned I can be a leader, I can be an innovator, and I can be a creator of change.”