Community is a main motivator for Will Burnett, who recently graduated with his bachelor’s in public health from the Department of Public Health Education. From working as a field data collector with the Center for Housing and Community Studies (CHCS) to interning with the New Arrival Institute, Burnett applied public health principles to make real-world impact in the community — all while maintaining a 3.9 GPA.
But Burnett did not always know that public health was his passion. In fact, when he first arrived at UNC Greensboro, he was a biology major. After a few public health courses, he was hooked by this intriguing discipline and immediately changed both his major and college trajectory.
“I just realized I really wanted to be more involved with the community,” he said, “I think public health opens your eyes to the idea that you’re working towards something greater.”
For Burnett, this “something greater” is a desire to help the community by working behind the scenes to improve public health. While at UNCG, he gained foundational knowledge in the classroom, applied experiences in Greensboro, and leadership opportunities on campus that provided him with a well-rounded skill set to help him reach this goal.
Applying Public Health Knowledge in the Community
Burnett’s public health journey began in the classroom where he learned key principles from faculty members invested in students’ growth. He said that each course, from Program Planning and Evaluation to Public Health Diseases, built naturally on the past course. This sequencing allowed Burnett to integrate knowledge in a cumulative manner and “fueled” his enthusiasm for the field.
Which course had the greatest impact on Burnett? “Mental Health and Wellbeing” taught by Dr. Paige Hall Smith and Dr. Meredith Gringle.
“This was an amazing course that truly taught the power of personal wellness and the importance of public health’s holistic approach,” Burnett said.
Part of this “holistic approach” that Burnett adopted was an appreciation for different cultural lenses and disciplinary perspectives. While at UNCG, he chose to pair his public health major with a Classics minor – perhaps an unlikely combination, but Burnett found synergy between the disciplines.
“I particularly love Roman and Greek history,” he said. “A lot of the foundations of what we do now with policy, which is what I’m going into, come from Latin law and Roman law.”
Armed with interdisciplinary insight from both public health and Classics courses, Burnett began to apply his book knowledge in the community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he worked as a field data collector for the CHCS. Among his tasks, Burnett collected and analyzed data from over 1000 students about their attitudes towards COVID-19.
In this role, he gained hands-on experience creating project reports and collaborating with over ten local health organizations. Soon, he broadened his work with the center by joining the health impact team where he collaborated on surveys related to housing assistance. Burnett describes that listening to tenants’ stories and helping them find resources was a “fulfilling job.”
Not only was Burnett able to apply his public health principles to the pandemic and housing-related topics through his work with the CHCS, he also gained experience assisting immigrant and refugee communities as an intern with the New Arrival Institute.
In this role, Burnett honed his ability to give presentations on a variety of topics, including resume building and Medicaid benefits. He also had the opportunity to meet with clients one-on-one and “build strong connections.” Burnett describes this internship experience as “foundational” in solidifying his career goal to work in global health.
“Getting the opportunity to help someone other than yourself and developing this bond with other cultures and communities who are different from your own was really important to me,” Burnett said.
Fostering Community on UNCG’s Campus
Burnett’s desire to learn about other cultures is one of the main factors that drew him to UNCG. Coming from a small high school and a multicultural family, Burnett hoped to meet other students from a variety of different backgrounds and learn from their “lenses.”
Burnett transformed his captivation with the campus into action as a student leader. He was a Spartan Guide for two years where he led tours to prospective students and trained future tour leaders. In addition, Burnett was an upper-class mentor with the Ashby Residential College. He said that being a part of this residential college provided him with a sense of belonging, a home base, and intellectual stimulation.
“Residential colleges gave me so many experiences that led me to where I am now and what I’m going to be doing later on,” Burnett said. “It’s always the place I go back to. It’s my starting point at UNCG.”
As a mentor across his various endeavors, Burnett said he invests in being a community member that others can count on. Whether being a shoulder to cry on or taking the time to listen to a peer, Burnett strives to show up for others in reliable and actionable ways.
In his future career, he aims to bring this same reliability and commitment to working with immigrant and refugee communities through policy. “I want to try and benefit as many people as I can, so I think working more behind the scenes is where I’ll thrive.”
His next stop is graduate school. Burnett has already been accepted to multiple graduate public health programs, including Columbia, George Washington University, and the National Taiwan University. Currently, Burnett plans to attend the University of Utah this fall. As he weighs his options and finalizes his decision, one program will wait to find out where this community-builder will make his mark next.
Story by Rachel Damiani
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications