Alexandria Pilot: Passionate about Public Health and Higher Education
A little over two years ago, Alexandria Pilot decided the time was right to begin working on a Doctor of Health Sciences (D.H.Sc.) degree. She always knew she wanted to pursue a doctorate, but she held a full-time job with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute (FBRI) at Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC). The program she chose had to allow her to continue the work she loved.
“Being employed in academia and higher education, I was aware of other colleges and universities in the area and what each had to offer,” Pilot said. “The more I learned about RUC, the more I knew it was right for me. RUC’s D.H.Sc. program offers small class sizes, online courses and the ability to continue working full time while earning your degree. That was exactly what I was looking for.”
From the moment Pilot graduated with her master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in 2014, she planned to continue her education. However, she wasn’t sure how that educational journey would continue and where.
She relocated when her father was transferred for his work, following her parents to their new home in southwest Virginia and settling just a few houses away from them in Roanoke.
A little over four years ago, Pilot began working at FBRI in the Center for Neurobiology Research, where she assists with two summer undergraduate research fellowship programs called neuroSURF (Translational Neurobiology Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) and MolVisSURF (Molecular Visualization Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship). It was there that she found support to continue her education.
“I didn't know exactly what field I wanted to pursue a doctorate in,” Pilot recalls, “but it was at FBRI that I really fell in love with higher education and academia. I discovered my interest in curriculum and program development, as well as working with students.”
Pilot’s director at the time, Michael Fox, Ph.D., encouraged her to make the leap, assuring her that she could learn and work simultaneously.
“Working in such a supportive and inspiring place truly shaped my decision to pursue a doctorate,” Pilot said. “Being a part of an organization with real-time science and novel research discoveries is an absolute honor and blessing.”
When Pilot joined her cohort at RUC, she already had an idea about what her research and scholarship would focus on.
“My job gives me the opportunity to interact with a diverse variety of students. Through that interaction, I realized how many students were encountering roadblocks in their educational journeys, like being underrepresented, minorities or first-generation college students,” Pilot said. “I saw that these students needed help to overcome these obstacles, and I saw the importance of higher education tools to assist with them with applications, financial aid and scholarship processes, among other things. I wanted to be able to mentor students, helping them find their voices and passions. I am passionate about education and want to help students find that passion in themselves.”
Pilot believes humanitarianism, or dedication to helping and representing people who need it, runs in her family and throughout her personal life. Both her brother and partner have degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Tech and are using those degrees in beneficial ways. Her brother, for example, works as a research engineer/scientist in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he studies renewable energy.
“My parents, brother and significant other are all passionate about bettering our lives and the lives of others through caring for other people, taking care of our planet through finding solutions to climate change, improving education, offering universal healthcare, reducing poverty, addressing rural health issues and giving access to amenities. Those are all passions of mine and interests within my family, which has truly helped me through the D.H.Sc. program at RUC. Having a support group that believes in what I believe in inspires me,” Pilot said.
At RUC, Pilot could choose a focus area for her program where she would concentrate her studies. She chose the education and academia concentration, which best fit her interest in curriculum and program development. Pilot said she has learned more than she could have ever hoped for.
“In addition to course development, assessment, evaluation and best practices,” she said, “I have also learned so much about quantitative and qualitative research methods and health-related topics, like epidemiology, policies, information technology and community health assessment.”
Pilot said she has had nothing but wonderful academic and personal experiences at RUC.
“The professors truly want you to succeed,” Pilot said. “The education and academia concentration taught by Dr. Lisa Allison-Jones is very comprehensive, and I have been able to directly apply everything learned in her courses to tasks that I am currently involved with at work and what I hope to be involved in in the future. In addition, the program director and my capstone chair, Dr. Jeannine Everhart, has been amazing to work with, dedicating a lot of time to helping me and her other students succeed. She has been instrumental as my chair and advisor.”
In addition, Pilot said that her cohort is composed of working adults just like herself. She said, “I have developed wonderful friendships with my classmates. Even though the courses are online, living in Roanoke and being able to visit RUC, meet in person with my professors and be a part of RUC events is a real treat. Roanoke feels like a higher education melting pot. It's inspiring to be a part of that through both my employer and school.”
Even with all of the positive experiences she has had at RUC, Pilot has had to overcome some speed bumps herself during her journey. Soon after she joined her cohort in the Jefferson College of Health Sciences D.H.Sc. program, the school merged into the Radford University family of colleges and programs.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect from the merger,” Pilot remembers, “but that uncertainty went away during the short transition period. If anything, I see that there are more opportunities for collaboration than there were before.”
Like almost everyone, COVID-19 also impacted Pilot, though she focuses on how her job may help us recover from the global pandemic.
“While COVID-19 did not affect my coursework much since our classes are online, I am happy that I have been able to continue with my academic program and plans,” Pilot said. “I know many have not been as fortunate as I am. This year has been very unpredictable, stressful and isolating, but I am thankful to still be employed and that my friends and family have their health. I am very excited to see what comes from the long hours and hard work that researchers, scientists, faculty, staff and students have dedicated to the study of COVID-19.”
Pilot now anticipates graduating in either Fall 2020 or Spring 2021, contingent on the research process and defending her capstone project. That project will focus on another of Pilot’s passions: women’s rights. She is currently conducting a study on the experiences of reproductive choices by women with terminal degrees in Roanoke.
“While I want my career after graduation to focus on helping college students succeed,” Pilot said, “I was inspired to explore this topic by the experiences I’ve had working with so many intelligent, successful, educated and talented women at FBRI and having intelligent, successful, educated and talented female professors. They have inspired me to pursue my capstone topic on women who wear multiple hats in their personal and professional lives.”
After graduation, Pilot says her options are wide open, and she will forever be grateful for the opportunity to enhance her education.
“Upon graduating, I would like to expand my horizons with teaching and course and curriculum development. I am open to exploring a plethora of higher education and academia opportunities. My educational journey, as well as my professional career, have all been so enriched by having the opportunities to collaborate with individuals all over the world, of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, genders and races.”