Emily Hays always wanted to find a career where she could make a difference for adolescents.
As an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University, her passion for children and youth led Hays to study human development and family science. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2011, she joined the Peace Corps to serve as a youth development volunteer for two years on the island of Dominica in the Eastern Caribbean. During Hays’ time in the volunteer program, she discovered her interest in adolescent sexual and reproductive health.
After her service concluded, Hays returned to the United States and continued her path with youth development, working for a youth shelter, then coordinating a foster care program and a youth transitional program. Her interest in adolescent sexual and reproductive health never faded, but after beginning graduate school in pursuit of a master’s degree in public health, Hays discovered a new enthusiasm in the field of evaluation.
Hays was first introduced to the idea of evaluation as a profession when working on the evaluation of a sexual health program monitored by the Center for Family Resilience at Oklahoma State University. Experiencing evaluation first-hand showed Hays how evaluation skills could help her create better programs for youth development and achieve her dream of making a difference.
“I knew I wanted to combine my expertise in youth development and new evaluation skills to help make positive impacts on youth and communities,” Hays said.
When she came across the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Evaluation Fellowship while exploring postgraduate opportunities online, Hays knew it was the perfect opportunity for her.
The Evaluation Fellowship is one of many Research Participant Programs at CDC, and offers participants the chance to gain first-hand experience in data collection and evaluation. The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.
For her appointment, Hays was matched with the Division of Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention (DSTDP)/National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention (NCHHSTP) Program at the CDC facility in Atlanta, Georgia. Under the mentorship of Marion Carter, Ph.D., Hays collaborated with the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention to conduct research and evaluate existing STD prevention programs and initiatives. Programs of focus within Hays’ research included Community Approaches to Reducing STDs, Strengthening STD Prevention and Control for Health Department and the STD Surveillance Network.
The goal of Hays’ efforts was to identify STD program impacts and outcomes, barriers to program success, areas that could be improved and program processes that are or are not working. “The evaluation of DSTDP programs leads to improvements in funding opportunities,” Hays explained, “which helps the STD prevention efforts of state and local health departments and organizations.”
Through her CDC fellowship, Hays gained valuable experience analyzing and synthesizing data, utilizing data visualization techniques and helping improve programs tailored to the needs of specific audiences. She encourages others to participate in the evaluation program, citing her professional development and expanded skill set as two of many reasons why she is grateful for her experience.
“The opportunities I have been afforded through this program are beyond what I would have experienced in an entry-level position after graduate school,” she said. “This program has truly helped further train and prepare me for obtaining my career goals.”
Hays’ fellowship also broadened her perception of evaluation as a profession.
“I never imagined I would end up in a field like evaluation,” she said. “It seemed too difficult and rigid. But that wasn’t the truth at all. I learned how important and doable evaluation is. Once you have a basic understanding of the evaluation process, you can use creativity and critical thinking to identify and answer program evaluation questions.”
After completing her fellowship at the CDC, Hays hopes to get back into community work so that she can apply her newly honed evaluation skills to programs addressing community public health needs.
The program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists and is managed for DOE by ORAU.