In the heart of Virginia Tech, a dynamic group of scholarship recipients is redefining the future of public health leadership. 

Through the university's growing Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree program, these first-generation students, empowered by the Presidential Scholarship Initiative, are breaking new ground to address health issues at the intersection of human, animal, and environmental well-being.  

With ambitions ranging from health care accessibility consulting to pediatric medicine and supported by a comprehensive system of financial aid, mentorship, and research opportunities, these scholars are poised to make significant impacts on public health, reflecting Virginia Tech's dedication to access and service.

The Presidential Scholarship Initiative has enabled these first-generation students to develop the tools they need to serve their communities and affect broader change. 

The often-immense financial burden of a college education can be a major deterrent for potential students, especially first-generation college students. The Presidential Scholarship Initiative supports academically talented students who have both significant financial needs and leadership potential. In addition to receiving a financial aid package for tuition, fees, room, and board, Presidential Scholars join a supportive community where they can find networking and mentorship opportunities. 

The program is intrinsically linked to Virginia Tech Advantage, a universitywide commitment to provide access to education to undergraduates with financial need. One goal of the Virginia Tech Advantage is to double the number of  Presidential Scholars at the university. 

Thanks to university initiatives, these future leaders in public health get crucial financial support as they pursue their degrees.

Headshot of Betaney Daniel.
Betaneya Daniel. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

A vision for accessible health care

Betaneya Daniel, a junior majoring in public health with minors in data and decision sciences and health communication, has always been interested in examining the complexities of health, and the public health major initially drew her to Virginia Tech. 

Daniel grew up in Woodbridge, Virginia, and at first, she wanted to be a doctor like her parents envisioned when they immigrated from Ethiopia.

"Then I realized that I want to focus on health in the greater sense, and that's when COVID hit, so public health became a huge topic," she said. “I gravitated more toward public health because you're able to look at health in so many ways — environmentally, individually, in a community sense. I feel like there's so many ways to look at health that allow me to study a broad range of things rather than focus on the health of the human body." 

After graduation, Daniel plans to pursue a master’s degree in business or public health. She ultimately wants a career in health care access consulting so she can make sure that people get the health care they need.  

Daniel received news that she would receive a Presidential Scholarship on her birthday — the best birthday gift she could ask for. Without it, she would not have been able to attend Virginia Tech and would have had to enroll in a university without an undergraduate public health program.

"It's allowed me to do a lot of things I wouldn't be able to do — a lot of students have to have another job, and it's stressful to handle both working and going to school. Having this scholarship allows me to just focus on my studies and to focus on extracurricular things."

Hokie Wellness, with its mission to foster a healthier community, has given her hands-on community health experience. As part of the substance abuse prevention arm of Hokie Wellness, Daniel talks to other students about harm reduction strategies around alcohol and opioid use and how to recognize alcohol poisoning or an opioid overdose. She also teaches them how to administer Narcan, a drug that treats opioid overdoses. 

"I wanted hands-on experience with community health. You can always do the work academically, but actually working with people is a lot different, and since I'm a health communications minor, I wanted to learn more about interpersonal communication and how best to reach out to people,” she said.

The best part of her Virginia Tech experience has been the friends she has made and the community she’s found in the tight-knit, welcoming public health program community. She is paying it forward as a program ambassador, helping new and prospective students learn about the public health degree and all the opportunities it brings.

"It feels good to be amongst like-minded peers," Daniel said. “Even though health care realities can be gloomy, being around other students who want to progress the system into a better way feels empowering.”

Headshot of Kathleen Nguyen.
Kathleen Nguyen. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

Forging a path in pediatric health

The pandemic brought a spotlight to the importance of public health, and as a result, first-year student Kathleen Nguyen realized that she could combine her interests in medicine, research, and administration by pursuing a degree in public health.  

She appreciates the flexibility of the public health major — because public health is an interdisciplinary field that covers everything from agriculture to gun violence, public health majors can forge their own paths and develop a variety of skills. 

Inspired by her own childhood doctor, Nguyen’s goal is to become a pediatrician. 

"I've always loved kids, and I've always had a passion for helping others,” she said. 

She volunteers with the Virginia Tech chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that creates opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through one-on-one friendships.  

From Fairfax, Virginia, Nguyen is the oldest of five children raised by a single mom. She is the first person in her extended family to attend college, and the  Presidential Scholarship Initiative has allowed her to follow her dreams.  

"With this scholarship, my mom is at ease,” Nguyen said. “I'm able to pursue an education so I can be a doctor one day without worrying about not having enough money to do that. This scholarship has given me everything that I need and more.”

Medical school is an expensive endeavor, but thanks to the Presidential Scholarship Initiative, she can save up money for medical school without worrying about funding her undergraduate degree. 

Headshot of Nicole Odibo.
Nicole Odibo. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

From personal insight to public service

Nicole Odibo is from Richmond, Virginia, but her family is from Nigeria, and an experience she had there was a catalyst for her interest in public health.  

When she and her family visited Nigeria in 2018, her mother bought boxes of food for the family to distribute to people in need on the streets. 

"Seeing the smiles on their faces after receiving it was really impactful for me,” Odibo said. “It's probably the reason why I want to do public health — to see the impact I could have on different communities."  

However, there were more hungry people than they could feed, Odibo and her family soon ran out of food.

"I thought, 'Who's going to fix this problem?' Maybe I can,” Odibo said.

In high school, Odibo participated in the Black College Institute, a summer program that hosts rising high school seniors and juniors at Virginia Tech. Through the Black College Institute, she was able to explore the college experience and receive guidance on the application process. 

"That program was the starting point of my Virginia Tech experience. I was really excited to come here, and when I got to campus, it was jumping, it was joyful, it was happy. People were kind and energetic,” she said. 

When Odibo entered college, she wanted to pursue a career as a physical therapist. There was just one problem — physical therapy did not excite her. Her brother, a member of the Class of 2021, recommended that she try public health instead. It turned out that public health fit perfectly with Odibo’s ambitions and desire to serve.

Odibo wasted no time before getting involved on campus. She joined First-Year Leadership Experience, a leadership development program that includes weekly meetings, two retreats, and a capstone project. Through this program, she developed leadership and mentorship skills that will allow her to pay it forward to others.  

She also became a mentor for the Black College Institute, and she is always thrilled to see former mentees thrive on campus. 

Thanks to the  Presidential Scholarship Initiative, Odibo has had opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue. For example, because the scholarship covers her tuition, Odibo was able to study abroad. Through the Steger Center for International Scholarship, she spent four and a half months in Switzerland last year — a life-changing trip. 

"Studying abroad in Switzerland was unlike any experience I've ever had in my life. Speaking another language, interacting with people you've never seen — it taught me so many skills,” she said.

During her time in Switzerland, Odibo learned the programming language R in a data analysis class. She had never studied computer science or written code before, but now she uses R in her research.

She conducts research under the College of Engineering’s Peter Vikesland, studying the pH and molecular structure of plants to determine their health. In addition, Odibo is part of F.I.R.E. (Forging Interest in Research and Engagement) Starters, a research program that increases access and training for underrepresented minority undergraduate students. 

Odibo plans to continue on earn a master’s degree in public health, and this valuable research experience will make her application more competitive. 

“College is not cheap, and the PSI [Presidential Scholarship Initiative] has helped me so much in my time here at Virginia Tech. It's an amazing opportunity, and I've got to make the most of it while I'm here,” she said.

Headshot of Milda Russom.
Milda Russom. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

Committed to community and emergency health

In the fifth grade, Milda Russom got to examine the different parts of a sheep’s brain through a program called Girls in Engineering and Math. Some children would be grossed out at the sight, but Russom was fascinated, and her experience inspired her to take an anatomy class. From that point on, Russom knew that she wanted to study the human body.  

She initially wanted to become a neurosurgeon, but once she entered college, she realized that being a physician's assistant was the right career path for her — it will give her the flexibility to work within many specialties and explore her interests. 

Russom is from Eritrea and grew up in northern Virginia. A junior, Russom is double majoring in public health at the veterinary college and Human Nutrition, Food, and Exercise at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

To Russom, helping others is second nature. Her biggest inspiration is her mother, who taught her and her siblings the importance of helping the community from an early age.

"She puts people first all the time. She plays a huge role as to why. It's also how you're raised. My mom raised us that even though it can take a toll on you, helping people is really good,” Russom said. 

That spirit of service led her to join the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad (VTRS), a student-run organization that provides emergency medical services to Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus. In addition to responding to 911 calls, squad members provide transport services, teaches classes on subjects like CPR and first aid, and is available on standby for events.  

Through the rescue squad, she earned her EMT certification and found a tight-knit community as dedicated to helping others as she is. 

"That's why I'm part of the VTRS, to give back,” Russom said.

Russom says that the  Presidential Scholarship Initiative has taken a huge weight off her and her parents’ shoulders. 

"Covering college is really expensive now, so I'm truly grateful and appreciative that I have an opportunity like this. I love the PSI program — they teach you a lot and they provide advising as well. It's more than the financial part of it, it's also about getting more resources,” she said. 

About the Public Health Program

Virginia Tech's Public Health Program in the Department of Population Health Sciences is administered by the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in partnership with the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

Working under a One Health framework that emphasizes the interconnectivity between human, animal, and environmental health, this interdisciplinary program sets students up for success in fields such as epidemiology, environmental health, and public health education. The community-focused program prepares students for innovative careers by combining core public health training and cross-disciplinary practices.

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