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There is a Story Behind Every Graduate


Young black man in college graduation robe and hat.
Curtis Hartley Jr.

We get busy with our work and forget the power of stories. Our own stories. I met Curtis Hartley in January 2021; he was a student in a public health and social justice class. I knew every student had a story, but not all wanted to share. Fourteen consecutive Thursdays. Curtis showed up early and stayed late. He was the kind of student every professor dreams of…curious, engaged, passionate, driven, and living with a spirit that anything is possible.

Jurnie Crawford, AKA Intern met with Curtis to find out more about his story and graduating with his bachelor’s degree in December 2022 from the University of North Carolina Greensboro.


 

Getting A Degree

So, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in Public Health Education. I wound up getting a Bachelor of Science in it. I picked public health because originally, I was a pre-med biochemical major and while that is a really cool major, I had a lot of family issues, so I had to drop out. I then waited about 5 years to go back to school. I was like well, I want to help people. I don’t particularly like doctors, especially now that I have been a pharmacy tech for so long and have had to deal with a lot of doctors. So, I asked myself, what else can I possibly do that will let me help people, but be able to not have to specifically do medicine? And I stumbled upon Public Health, and I took a few classes. And I was like well I will try it and see how I like it and then I was enamored with it. I took the class with Dr. Kelley, and she just blew my mind and we really resonated, she really pushed me to do what I want to do and to be unapologetic about it.


What I wish I knew…

This is going to sound crazy. It’s nothing I didn’t know beforehand. It is more that I became sure about it.

That no matter how well-intentioned someone is and no matter how much they try and change a system if the system itself is flawed no matter how much you change it or alter it, it’s going to always be flawed until you break that system down and restart. I always knew that systems, especially big systems tend to be the issue when it comes to Public Health, but I never really knew just how deep that issue is until I really started studying Public Health.

I work in a big hospital system. The system itself is great, but you can see they have such a big system that sometimes I feel like they miss out on really great opportunities to do something for the community. They have a lot of stuff for the community but at the same time on a smaller scale, they miss out on things. To me, since I do a lot with race, ethnicity, and social justice I see things differently than a lot of people do and I just see lots of missed opportunities.

In Public Health, community buy-in is important, so I guess that is what I’m trying to get to, how important community buy-in really is. You know you go into a situation, let’s say you see a hospital is failing instead of asking the community and the people at the hospital what are some issues that you all are seeing, people come in and they are like oh, well they are losing money because they are doing so many social outreach programs. But it might actually be that they have so many people in higher-up positions who are getting paid so much money that if they could fire let’s say six people and that would pay to fix the hospital.


The Best Class

HEA447 at UNCG was by far my favorite class. Dr. Kelley just pushed the envelope. I don’t like it when professors give word limits and when they say it must be done in this specific way. When it comes to Public Health nothing is just one specific way everyone has a voice, everyone has their own perception of things. Dr. Kelley in that specific class was always open to new ideas and worked with the students to help them. That class as a whole, I don’t know if you heard her talk about that class, but we had a lot of people of color and a lot of people that weren’t of color, so a pretty good mix of people and everyone was really vulnerable. We had a lot of really really tough conversations about race, ethnicity, and social justice, and the Five Faces of Oppression (marginalization, exploitation, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence). We had a whole conversation about HIV and what the HIV pandemic was like and why it was as spread out as it was. There was a portion where someone had talked about how the HIV pandemic was mirrored by the COVID pandemic and how a class of people is seen as less than…. A lot of things were mirrored in that, especially the communities that were affected the most were poor communities, communities of color, and communities where they didn’t have those resources or access to vaccines. Let’s say someone has to go to work because they are dirt poor, but they are immunocompromised, they don’t have the luxury of saying I will call out from work, so I don’t get sick. It brought to light a lot of issues that people don’t talk about, and it drives me crazy because when I start to talk about them to people, they are just like that is not important…that is already passed, and I am like well COVID is still an issue. Just like HIV, COVID became a common everyday thing it’s no longer OMG they had COVID is more like ugh they had COVID, and they keep it rolling. It is just so wild to me…


Advice for Other Students

Don’t be afraid to question the status quo.

That is like my biggest thing, don’t be afraid to ask your professor “I don’t understand why this is this way”. Like for example I don’t understand why male circumcision is the go-to norm. Don’t be scared to ask, don’t be scared to ask statistics, and don’t be scared to say… this is a big one a lot of people are scared to say especially people of color, “Well what does race and ethnicity of the stereotype look like?” Don’t be scared to ask, it’s very important in being able to help a community. I’m going to help a community differently if the majority of them are Hispanic as opposed to a Black community. There is a different culture there. If I am addressing sexual diseases, and the community is let’s say Mexican and I go to another community that is Black, 9 times out of 10, a lot of people get up in arms about this. I would approach it from a more religious standpoint for a Black community and for a Mexican or Hispanic community I would focus more on families and those statistics. Whereas in my personal experience, a lot of Black communities will listen more if you talk about it from more of a religious perspective when it comes to why they should do this and why they should do that.


My Dreams My Future

Young black man walking on a stage to accept diploma.
Curtis accepting diploma at his graduation.

I applied to a dual program at Chapel Hill. I applied for their master’s in social work with direct practice and I applied for their race, ethnicity, social justice, equity, and health track. So, I applied to both of those programs and now I’m just waiting to hear back and I’m so nervous I won’t get in. But everyone is saying they will be dumb not to take you.

I don’t think my dream job has a specific job title, but I would want to have a job where I am in charge. I love toxicology … but I really want to affect the lives of children in a meaningful way so I don’t know if I want to be like the director of Division of Social Services, or Child Protective Services… I don’t exactly know where I’m going to fall with my final job, but I know I want to work with children because they are just amazing.

Even when children are not being amazing, they are and they deserve everything in the world. They deserve every chance, every opportunity. I really believe that no child should be left behind and not just pushed through and passed just so they are not stuck back a grade.

I feel like if a child is struggling why are we not saying okay pause what can we do to get the child up to speed not just okay well we have to pass the child so they don’t feel left out, what is the deficiency why are they not being able to learn like the rest of the children? Do they need a smaller class, do they need more time, is there some type of developmental delay, is there some type of resource where they can give them and their family to help?

Growing up I had an IEP.

I was given extra resources and I grew up just fine because I had supportive teachers who pushed me and got me to where I needed to be and got me going. Now I'm at a point in my life where I can help others too and I don’t see why that is too much to ask for any child that needs it.


Black woman hugging a young black man in graduation robe.
Curtis and his niece at UNCG Graduation.

Blossoming Into Self

I feel like if anyone is interested in public health and interested in it to help people and not just for a career, then public health is for them.


But you also have to know your limits and you have to understand how to take care of yourself before you take care of someone else.

Take a day for yourself… for example, my mom loves to play bongos, I don’t know why but she loves it, and she doesn’t always take the time for herself. My mom is always busy taking care of other people. My whole life she has been like that, and she is great at it, but as I have gotten older, I have seen her personality just kind of drain and vanish and she has to find herself again. Just like with a kid, I tell people all the time don’t rush to have a kid because a kid isn’t a plaything, a kid isn’t there for you to control a kid is there for you to give them the skills and tools that they need to get through life not to mold them into what you think they should be but to let them blossom into themselves.


 

The Story

Reading this interview, I know more about Curtis and his story. I know his mom plays the bongos and he did not have an easy path to earn his bachelor’s degree. I know he loves toxicology, and he will be a leader of a child-serving organization. I see his brilliance and bravery in his story… for systems change, empowering communities, and developing culturally-centered programs and interventions that uplift, empower, and heal. I see the road of possibilities opening for him. It is the choices that he has made and the support of many. Once students find their purpose, they are unstoppable…this is what the current and future generations of public health workers must remember.



AK


Thanks to Curtis Hartley Jr., Jurnie Crawford and Allyson Kelley for capturing this story.


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