Undergrad sets sights on a career in disaster resilience after working on flood recovery efforts

November 11, 2015

Liz Harrison

Liz Harrison

While thousands of S.C. residents were experiencing chaos and destruction in their lives due to the devastating floods last month, Elizabeth (Liz) Harrison was finding purpose in hers: disaster resilience. The Philadelphia native and senior public health major was already contemplating which path to pursue for her graduate studies (i.e., public health policy vs community health in an international context) when she decided to gain some practical experience by applying to AmeriCorps.

After returning from a semester abroad this past spring, Harrison joined the “domestic version of the Peace Corps” to help make a difference in the local community. She had no idea how much experience she would get and how much it would alter her career plans. Harrison applied to the organization’s Student Success Project as the volunteer coordinator for Communities in Schools of the Midlands—making a 10-month, 900-hour commitment. Beginning her role in August, she learned how to train and conduct orientations for tutors and volunteers as well as engage universities and other local partners.

Then a 1,000-year rainfall dropped an estimated 5.8 trillion gallons of water on S.C. over a five-day period, and it was all hands on deck. On the Tuesday (October 5) following that record period of rainfall and subsequent flooding, Harrison’s AmeriCorps supervisor asked if she could lend her rapidly developing volunteer coordination skills to flood relief efforts at the State Emergency Operations Center in West Columbia. While all of her friends went home when classes were canceled, Harrison was at the center of it all. Working alongside National Guard members and state leaders like Governor Nikki Haley, Harrison helped the S.C. State Commission and United Way Association of S.C. get the Palmetto state back on its feet.

“We had 4,000 local people who wanted to volunteer, but it wasn’t safe to send them out yet,” says Harrison. “People were dropping off donations and helping through various grassroots efforts, but there was no coordination initially. Our state really hadn’t seen a disaster of this scale and complexity before—at least not recently—so we were starting from scratch in many ways.” Working directly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), they developed an infrastructure for connecting volunteers with opportunities and streamlined the various processes involved.

“We’ve been coordinating for S.C. VOAD—Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster—by serving as a point of contact, organizing conference calls, and figuring out next steps,” Harrison says. “Every state has a VOAD group that is linked to the national headquarters and connects member organizations and agencies, such as the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross.” Her team has also been running the GetConnected website that the media reference for those who need help or want to volunteer.

Now that the emergency response team has moved from disaster mode to short-term recovery to rapid recovery, they are finally transitioning to long-term recovery planning (e.g., funding sources, sustainability strategies, etc.) at their Joint Force Operations office in Blythewood. Harrison’s life-changing experience with this particular disaster is winding down for her—although she will continue to serve as the volunteer coordinator for her original project with Communities in Schools of the Midlands, as she has done all along.

“AmeriCorps has opened up so many doors for me and in ways that I did not expect before I joined,” says Harrison, who has even had the opportunity to meet with the organization’s CEO. “I knew that AmeriCorps would be a great experience, but I never would have expected that it would change what I wanted to do with public health.”

Before she switched her major from pharmacy to public health as a sophomore, Harrison had already been inspired by an environmental health sciences class. “I loved figuring out how the environment affects health,” she says. However, disaster resilience was still not on her radar.

Prior to the flooding incident, Harrison was having a hard time choosing between her two preferred public health fields of public policy and international community health. Now she is sure. “I definitely want to earn a master’s degree in disaster resilience, preferably through the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane University,” she says.

Instructor and advisor Charlotte Galloway has served as an important mentor for Harrison during her time at the Arnold School. “When teaching her Intro to Public Health course, Dr. Galloway always said that we would go off to do big things—making us feel like we could,” Harrison says. “She really cares about what we want to do and has always been my sounding board for all of the different things I’ve considered doing with public health.”

“I can see now that she’s sure about what she wants to do,” says Galloway, who was one of Harrison’s first contacts when she discovered her new calling. “She’s been doing meaningful work that has helped shape her career path—work that helped her feel empowered enough to choose her graduate program and go for it.”

Coincidentally, Galloway herself jumped into disaster resilience as a then-graduate student at the Arnold School shortly after 9/11. “There was an infusion of money at the federal level for preparedness training,” she says. “We helped create a Center for Public Health Preparedness—one of 27 centers within accredited schools of public health across the country.” As someone who has literally sat in the same emergency operations center for disaster resilience strategizing, Galloway praises Harrison’s current efforts and is cheering on her future plans from a well-informed point of view.

Now that Harrison can see her future more clearly, she is excited about the possibilities. She hopes to use her Spanish minor to work internationally after she earns her master’s degree in disaster resilience. She’s also a ringing endorsement of how AmeriCorps can help volunteers give back and gain something at the same time. “Even though the volunteer position is unpaid, you do get a living stipend, an education award, various graduate school application fees waved, and networking opportunities with a huge alumni base,” Harrison says. And the experience? “Priceless.”

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