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GHI Students’ Internship Efforts ‘Made a Huge Impact’

The hard work three Global Health Initiative (GHI) students put in last summer has paid off, leaving a long-lasting impact on the Appalachian Region of Kentucky.

Kody Witham ’22, Thomas Gastineau ’23, and Don Silas ’24 interned with Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), a nonprofit organization that champions local projects, programs, and advocacy for counties in Eastern Kentucky.

Kody Witham (far left), Don Silas and Thomas Gastineau

Under the guidance of CDC epidemiologist Dr. Margaret Riggs, the students were tasked with researching the causes of and proposing solutions to the area’s nursing shortage.

Like other parts of the country, the need for nurses in Eastern Kentucky has become critical over the last several years. There are many contributing factors, ranging from an aging population suffering from chronic illnesses, nursing burnout, a push to leave Appalachia due to a perceived decrease in economic opportunity, and a lack of awareness of opportunities in education or trade after high school.

Witham, Gastineau, and Silas crafted a proposal to start a mentorship program that would help high school students from underserved communities connect with nursing students, practicing or retired nurses, and other healthcare professionals who would guide them through the process of pursuing higher education.

“There are high school students who want to go into the medical field and pursue nursing, but they don’t know how,” said Gastineau, a biochemistry major. “If you’re a first-generation college student and not familiar with all the requirements, applications, and scholarships, the whole process can be very intimidating. Having someone there for you, who has been through it all and is successful, makes a difference.”

Recently, Riggs reached out to the former interns to let them know that their efforts laid the groundwork for a “huge impact in the region.”

SOAR received a grant from the Kentucky Department for Public Health’s Office of Health Equity to host the first-ever interactive and engaging Healthcare Career Pathway Fair. More than 600 high school students from five counties attended the event last month.

Funding will also support the development of a summer program, Appalachian Health Academy. The two-week course is designed for rising high school juniors, who will receive health education, career skills training, and scholarships. Riggs said the students will also be paired with a mentor who will guide them through the remainder of high school and set them up for success in post-secondary education in healthcare.

“I am truly impressed by what Kody, Thomas, and Don accomplished in their short time with SOAR,” Riggs said. “Not only did they work well as a team, but each of them individually brought an essential skill that allowed for their project to succeed. Their genuine interest in the region, productivity, innovative ideas, ability to take initiative, and work as a cohesive team far exceeded expectations for a summer intern project.” 

Witham, a biochemistry major, said seeing the impact his work had on SOAR months after the internship was completed is fulfilling.

GHI interns with CDC epidemiologist Dr. Margaret Riggs

“We aimed to learn and immerse ourselves in the culture of the Appalachian region to better understand the issues the region faced,” Witham said. “It is heartwarming to see the work put into these communities make impacts that hopefully will last for generations.”

Professor of Biology and GHI Director Eric Wetzel said he’s thrilled that their efforts moved forward a project that will be expanded upon.

“These guys had a fantastic and productive experience in their GHI internship, and got a great picture of global public health as that intersects with health care, business, education, and marketing,” Wetzel said. “It captures much of what we hope guys take away from a foray into global public health, seeing how the challenges are really liberal arts issues at the core.”

Silas, a chemistry major, thanked Wetzel and GHI Program Coordinator Jill Rogers for making the internship possible.

“I'm glad to be able to see something I helped develop with my peers begin to innovate the Appalachian health care system and workforce,” Silas said. “The programs we developed will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the future of health in the region.”

Are you interested in joining the Global Health Initiative? All Wabash students who have an interest in public health, regardless of class year or major, are invited to join the initiative. Learn more about the GHI by visiting