Graduate gives back to Weakley County
Contact 1: Erin Chesnut
MARTIN, Tenn. — Shawnee Edwards graduated May 5 from the University of Tennessee at Martin with a bachelor’s degree in health and human performance. But before she crossed the commencement stage, she used her time on campus to help make a difference in Weakley County.
Edwards is originally from the Weakley County area but grew up in Franklin before returning to UT Martin. After starting college as a nursing major, she discovered the field of public health – a concentration within the health and human performance major – and fell in love with a new calling.
“Ever since I was young, I always said I wanted to become a nurse, but that was probably because I knew nurses helped people, and I care about people and I wanted to help people,” she said. “Then I realized (public health) is like nursing except (at the) population level. It’s more people and not just one patient.
Public health is a field that studies the spread and prevention of diseases and promotes good personal health through public education and programming. Edwards found hands-on experience in the field by completing an internship with the Weakley County Prevention Coalition where she organized several local educational programs to help residents understand the dangers of tobacco and alcohol use. However, Edwards and the coalition largely focused on combating the growing misuse of opioid medications, which has become a national health epidemic.
“A lot of people don’t understand the effect (opioid abuse) has on everyone. Even though you think it’s not going to affect you, it can happen to someone that you know,” she said. “A lot of the opioid crisis stuff, it starts with the students, the kids.… We want to steer them in a positive direction so they don’t fall into substance abuse.”
Edwards has used her time with the coalition to participate in the Parent Health Resource Fair at Martin Enrichment Academy, during which she coordinated a health fair to let parents know what community resources are available for their children. She also coordinated a drive-thru flu vaccine clinic, helped distribute prescription drug lock boxes to parents and served as vice president of SOARx on the UT Martin campus.
SOARx – Student Organized Against Drugs – is the first entirely student-run anti-drug coalition on a Tennessee university campus. Edwards and her fellow members organized an on-campus drug take-back day to collect unwanted or expired prescription and over-the-counter medications from students. They also distributed nearly 1,000 Top Shelf ID Coders to area businesses, which help those selling alcoholic products quickly determine if a customer is of drinking age.
“The purpose (of SOARx) is to help the University of Tennessee at Martin community rise above substance abuse through social awareness, education and support,” she said. “We’re increasing awareness on campus and letting people know how they can get involved in their community.”
The public health field offers a wide range of employment opportunities from hospitals and schools to research, statistical analysis and epidemiology. Edwards has found her niche in community outreach and plans to continue down this path as a UT Martin alumna.
“Since I’ve interned with the Weakley County Prevention Coalition, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve been doing there – being out in the community and meeting people and networking. It’s great to see that you’re making a difference, and you really know that you’re making a difference,” she said.
Edwards intends to return to the Nashville area to work, but her efforts to help Weakley County residents learn more about avoiding substance abuse will linger long after her bags are packed.
“What I hope to ultimately leave behind in Martin … is a good foundation for the members of SOARx so they can continue to educate and implement projects on campus and in the community,” she said. “The Students Organized Against Drugs campus coalition is growing and has great plans in place for the future.”
(top) Shawnee Edwards
(bottom) Edwards (center) is pictured with her mother, Ladonna Brooks (right), and friend Kandace Williams (left).