Building Connections

Ashley Wells links public health, UNCW, and the community

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ASHLEY WELLS is a matchmaker, bringing together faculty, students, government personnel, and business partners to improve the health of the community.

As the first-ever assistant dean of community engagement at the College of Health and Human Services at UNCW, Wells says it’s “awesome to come to a brand spanking new position and really try to carve out what this position will do, how we will support the college students and faculty in connecting with the community and what that impact looks like eventually down the road.”

A “triple dog” at the University of Georgia, where she earned her undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate degrees, Wells said she fought going into public health. She wanted to go to law school. She worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its national center for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and tuberculosis prevention on her college breaks.

“But when I graduated, I realized I had really caught the bug,” she recalls. “And a lot of people will tell you they caught the public health bug, something that lives deep inside your DNA, that just pulls you to this field of helping, of educating, solving problems.”

So, Wells pursued a master’s of public health degree, focusing on health promotion. Her doctorate in adult learning, leadership, and organization development followed.

She’d had numerous diverse experiences in public health before getting the job at UNCW in 2018, causing her to move her whole life, including her husband, three children — then ages 10, 9, and 6 —and a dog — North.

And every time she started to get some traction in her new job, she stumbled across a setback that impacted her work, including two hurricanes and a pandemic.

“That was a really quick ‘throw me in the deep end’ kind of way to learn about the community,” she recalls. While Hurricane Florence was hitting and afterward, in the recovery and response stage, Wells was able to understand who the players were in the community, what the needs were, and how the areas for which she is accountable could fit into that.

“Health and human service needs are always changing,” Wells, says. Part of her job is knowing what’s needed in the community and providing leadership at the college level to connect to those needs and resources.”

“Just when you think you’ve understood one thing, something else comes along and happens. Or you get new data on something else.”

For instance, for some time it looked as if Medicaid would be expanded in the state, and then it was halted.

“You just have to really be agile and have that sort of growth mindset. Otherwise, I think you’ll be bogged down and not able to get out of your own way.”

And because there are many people working in the health and human services space, Wells says it’s important that the college find its place in it; this also is an opportunity for the college “to elevate up a level. We have amazing faculty and students, and staff and they’re doing awesome, awesome things and my goal is to really help support them.”

“We really try to establish a line of communication with the community to take information back and forth,” about current public health and education needs. This often means connecting students to experiential learning opportunities, faculty to research opportunities, and helping the college to create strategic partnerships in the community, including with the county department of health and human services, for instance.

Wells is currently leading an effort to establish a primary care teaching clinic in a new building on campus. The collaboration with a local healthcare provider will give students and faculty the opportunity to work with providers in a patient-centered, team-based model.

“It’s very important to me that people know we are a team,” Wells says.

“I am very much focused on building authentic partnerships and establishing our college as a resource that can support local activities, and in turn have our local community teach us about how the community operates and share their expertise with us inside and outside the classroom.”

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Categories: Health