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Tiffany Wilkinson

Alumni Spotlight: Tiffany Wilkinson

Alumni of the College of Applied Health Sciences have myriad career options thanks to the tremendous diversity of programs. We periodically will put the spotlight on an alum to find out what they're doing now, what experiences they had and what AHS means to them. This week, we talk to Tiffany Wilkinson, who got her bachelor of science in 2011 in Community Health and is now Senior Public Health Research Associate with Arizona-based Empowerment Research, LLC.

Q: Why did you pick AHS?

A: The University of Illinois became a collegiate option when I was approached and offered a scholarship from the Wheelchair Basketball Program at the university. I am originally from Arizona, born and raised, and the thought of going out of state hadn’t crossed my mind until I was recruited to the program. I knew I had an area of focus I wanted to get into and when I did my research into the university it was very clear that the College of Applied Health Sciences was where I needed to be. I wanted to stay in the realm of health education and public health, as my goal transitioning out after college was to get back into the nonprofit sector because I believed in working with communities and helping to improve the quality of life of those who benefited from such organizations and services. After careful consideration and debate I knew I wanted to get into AHS and get my degree in Community Health because it closely matched what I wanted to pursue as a career after college.

Q: Which professors had the most impact on you?

A: This is a tough question as I loved all my classes, professors, and experiences at Illinois. But if I had to name a couple people here who had the most impact on me I would have to say for one, Professor (David) Strauser. I loved his courses and the enthusiasm, dedication, and passion he brought resonated with me. I conducted a research project with two other students under his supervision for one of our courses. I love research, data analysis, and statistics, and conducting our project, and getting to present it at the Symposium on campus, was one of the highlights while I was there. He supported what we wanted to do, what areas we wanted to focus on, and guided us to do our work and due diligence during the whole process. It was a valuable learning experience but it was also fun at the same time. And that research project, which was based in the disability community, helped provide another lense to what I was doing and where I wanted to go. His courses truly helped shape the path I wanted to continue on and I am forever grateful for those experiences. He was definitely one of my favorite professors on campus. To this day I work within the disability community, and have been for several years, and I have to thank him for what I learned in his courses but for also grounding even deeper my passion for wanting to work within the disability community as well. 

I also want to make mention of two other amazing people, my academic advisors, Christopher Cosat and Carol Firkins, as they probably were two of the most hands-on and supportive people on campus. I cannot express enough gratitude for those two advisors in the College of Applied Health Sciences. They were fantastic at supporting me, keeping me on track for graduation, advising what classes I should take and what semester, advice on professors, you name it. Besides them being extraordinary at their job, they were both kind, caring, and compassionate. They went above and beyond to help students and showed me such heart and warmth during my time there that I can’t say enough about them. There were several occasions where I struggled, lost two grandparents in the same year and was away from family, and I could turn to them, no questions asked, and they would listen to my struggle and offer as much help as they could. It isn’t just doing the job, but also caring about the human being who is a student, but also someone’s daughter or son, niece, brother, sister, whatever. And that is the side that made them two very influential people during my time at Illinois. 

I would also like to add that I had an incredible experience in one of my classes that has stayed with me since that day in class. It was Community Health 100, I believe, an entry-level course. And one day we had a guest speaker who came in to talk with us about cancer (that was the section we were on in the course). She was 35 years old, a wife, mother, daughter, and she had breast cancer. She was there to tell us her story and what she was going through. I remember it like it was yesterday and I will never forget it. She shared how her goal was to see her son’s fifth birthday, as the cancer she had was very aggressive. To see him get to five, I couldn’t even fathom that. Her strength, conviction, life experiences, all of that touched my heart. I don’t remember there being a dry eye in the classroom that day after she shared her story. And at the end she said she was leaving us and going to get a double mastectomy at the hospital right after. I was just blown away that this brave woman took the time out of her life to come talk to us, share her story, right before having a life changing surgery. That to me was one of the most incredible experiences I had on campus in that sense and forever grateful to my professor (I can’t remember his name) that he did that for us. 

These are the reasons why Illinois stands out to me and why I know deep down I made the right choice going to the university and choosing the College of Applied Health Sciences. It was these experiences, and individuals that still shape who I am today since I graduated. And as I have said, I am forever grateful for them and my time at Illinois.

Q: What course did you most enjoy?

A: It is really tough choosing just one course that I enjoyed the most. In response to a previous question I did make mention of one day in a course that has stayed with me, the guest speaker we had. But it is hard to choose just one course overall as each one taught me something different and my experiences were also unique in each one as well. But one course that did stand out the most for me was REHB 402: medical aspects of disability with Professor Strauser. During the semester we had the opportunity to study and become more familiar with various physical, mental, and cognitive disabilities and what they look like for those individuals in the community who have them. I found the class very fascinating and highly educational. Plus it was a special area of interest for me as well. One part of the class I thoroughly enjoyed was when we got to work in small groups where we were given case studies and we had to diagnose (and) figure out what the disability was. The ones I found the most intriguing were disabilities that fell under mental health. The psychological side of those disabilities and how someone’s mind and brain manifests and changes was so intriguing. To this day I remember working on those case studies and it was one of my best learning experiences in a class. I am a hands on, experience, kinesthetic learner so when we got to work in groups and on projects like that it helped me turn what I learned knowledge wise into something applicable, by working on case studies and real-life experiences.

I also thoroughly enjoyed all of my other health education courses, as well as a couple of the kinesiology courses I had to take as well. I have always been fascinated by how the body and mind work, so when I had the opportunity to take all these courses related to that, and disability as a part of, I just dove right in.  I do have to add that one course I took outside the College of Applied Health Sciences was Sociology. That course also aided in my career path because I got to take a bigger look outside us as individuals and look at the community level and how we as humans fit into that. With my career goals post graduation of going to work in the nonprofit sector I knew that this course would also better prepare me on how to look not just at the individual but also the whole of the community and how we interact and intersect. To choose just one course is really hard as I could look back over my career at Illinois and give hundreds of examples of educational experiences I had in each course and what they taught me. But the ones mentioned above would have to be at the top of my list and most impactful courses I took. 

Q: Did you enter AHS knowing your career path, or did AHS help you decide?

A: As mentioned above, I had an idea of my career path going into AHS. I had some life/work experience under my belt prior to attending the university. I knew I wanted to stay in the area of community/public health with an emphasis on health education. But it did help me decide what I wanted my future to look like. I would also have to add that my internship at the Women’s Resource Center on campus also helped shape my future as well. (I am) grateful for that experience and what it taught me that semester in college. I had a passion for service, for helping others, and doing what I could to make this world a better place, one person at a time. And I found my passion within the disability community, but also within violence education and prevention as well. AHS helped foster that, along with my many other wonderful and educational experiences on campus. 

Q: Did your AHS experience lead to your current job?

A: I would say AHS did in fact help get me better prepared for the career path I have gone down. What I learned while attending the university gave me the tools, resources, and education to back up some of my previous experiences in the career force before attending the university. It also validated that I was on the right path and pursuing the right degree for what I wanted to do. Every position I have held post graduation has been supported by my academic success at the university but also my internship as part of my degree as well. Everything I learned from AHS, my professors, academic advisors, peers, has benefited me in some shape or form during my journey. 

Q: What is your current job?

A: My current job is Senior Public Health Research Associate with the company Empowerment Research, LLC based in Arizona. Dr. Susan Wolf and I provide training, education, and technical assistance to the community on brain injury and neuro-impairment. The courses and trainings we offer cover a variety of topics related to brain injury and how to support individuals in school, the workplace, and community. On top of those annual events we also do program evaluation and curriculum development, and consulting on other various projects. 

Q: What was your favorite on-campus experience?

A: I do not know how I can choose just one on-campus experience but since I have to, I would have to say my career being a wheelchair basketball player for the university would definitely be one of my highlights. Nothing beats playing a tournament on your home court. Teammates by your side, coaches supporting from the sidelines, the competition, the adrenaline, playing against a tough opponent, and that feeling of a big win. I was proud to be a student at the university, but I was even more honored to be a student-athlete and play the game I love. Those experiences from tournaments, to practices, watching film, developing a game plan, weight training program, all of it was incredible and made me feel even more part of the university. I cherish those moments and my time there and hands down some of my most memorable experiences were on that basketball court wearing orange and blue to represent the university.  I would also like to add that I am incredibly grateful on so many levels for the staff, coaches, athletes, student volunteers, athletic trainers, and overall support from the University and the Wheelchair Basketball Program. DRES was a second home for me and the love and support from everyone involved with the program was incredible. One person that always went above and beyond for every single athlete and student was Maureen Gilbert, and I want to say a special thank you to her for everything she did for me while I was there but for every other student as well. I am beyond grateful for her and the program is very lucky to have her, along with the amazing other staff and coaches. 

Q: What does AHS mean to you?

A: AHS means family, community, and a lifelong belonging to something bigger than us individually. I am proud to be a graduate of the University of Illinois but I am also incredibly proud to be a graduate from the College of Applied Health Sciences. The adventure I embarked upon by becoming a Fighting Illini is one of the best adventures in my life so far. I feel a humbling honor to be a part of a community of individuals that is out there doing their part to make this world a better place. I feel everything does happen for a reason, and the reason I ended up at Illinois was to help guide me to where I am today but also to where I am going tomorrow. 

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