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The University of Kentucky College of Public Health (CPH) is commemorating Black History Month with spotlights on students and alumni throughout the month. 

University of Kentucky College of Public Health (CPH) alum Dr. Alex F. Howard is committed to addressing health disparities and fostering equity. This commitment reflects his experiences at CPH, where he developed an appreciation for community-driven interventions. 

“The training I received at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health has been instrumental throughout my professional development and the arch of my career,” he said.

Dr. Howard serves as the Vice President for Health & Wellness at Dogwood Health Trust, a healthcare conversion organization dedicated to serving the western most counties of North Carolina through strategic investments of $76 million annually. He said investments support the safety net providers of our region, as well as non-profit organizations serving residents by addressing the social drivers of health. 

“Throughout my career, I have prioritized the meaningful use of data and assessment in an effort to understand how people are having varied health-related experiences,” he said. “Understanding different experiences and outcomes within a group, or between groups is only part of the puzzle. Once there is a level of understanding, I feel there is a duty to act upon the factors that have contributed/are contributing to the disparate outcomes.

“The totality of this work requires an understanding of diverse data, a willingness to get into communities and engage people, and a commitment to systems-level change despite it being a relatively slow process and the inherent scrutiny that accompanies change at this level.”

Dr. Howard’s early influences and educational journey are deeply rooted in his experiences growing up in a small, rural North Carolina town. His parents’ experiences growing up in sharecropping families allowed them to share valuable wisdom. As Dr. Howard absorbed these insights, he recognized the disparities in their lived experiences compared to those of their White counterparts. He said his father's military service and global exposure emphasized the values of faith, resilience, and the importance of surrounding oneself with a supportive community.

During high school, Dr. Howard faced a moment of adversity when an individual told him to “consider paths other than college because your parents didn’t go to college and it’s hard. Maybe look at trade school or getting on with one of the local companies.” The discouragement only fueled his determination, as did his father’s counsel, which compared the strength required to attend college and his father’s own experiences in the military and farming.

“The sentiment of my father’s words anchored me throughout my college experience and continues to guide me today,” Dr. Howard said.

As a first-generation college student, he left his hometown of Clinton knowing he wanted to attend medical school and be a physician. He said a degree in athletic training provided a level of comfort regarding employability, and due to the required clinical rotations, it also gave him a lens into the healthcare world as an undergraduate student.

Dr. Howard’s introduction to public health came during his studies at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, where he discovered a passion for health policy and administration. While considering a departure from medical school, his wife was offered an opportunity to return to the University of Kentucky to lead an emerging research endeavor in the Department of Orthopedics. During a visit to UK, Dr. Howard had the chance to connect with CPH faculty and staff at CPH.

“The rest is history. Transitioning from North Carolina to Kentucky and pursuing a career in public health has truly been life altering and I am ever appreciative of my experiences at UK CPH,” he said.

Post-graduation, Dr. Howard joined the CPH faculty and took on a leadership role involving the newly developed undergraduate degree and the practicum component of both the Master of Public Health and Doctorate of Public Health programs. He then transitioned to Appalachian State University to develop the Department of Wellness and Prevention Services. Later, he assumed the role of Assistant Vice Chancellor, overseeing multiple departments.

Dr. Howard is also committed to mentoring marginalized students, especially Black mentees. As a mentor in CPH’s Catalyst Alumni Mentorship Program, he advocates for diversity in the public health workforce and focuses on cultivating opportunities.

“Having the opportunity to mentor students, who also identify as Black, is a gift that I do not take for granted,” he said. “Similar to mentoring students that identify as first-generation college attendees, or native to rural areas, there is a shared history of both challenge and triumph.”

Dr. Howard advises students, particularly those encountering challenges, to “find your people and fight for that which you desire. For those students that represent historically marginalized and underrepresented populations, know that your journey may contain additional challenges, and it is imperative that you have a robust network of trusted people you can lean on to guide you through your journey.”

Being a part of the college for over a decade, Dr. Howard has seen first-hand the growth of CPH.

“Since my enrollment in 2007, CPH has undergone significant transformations,” he said. “It has embraced change by introducing an undergraduate degree, demonstrating adaptability to evolving educational landscapes. Throughout these shifts, the emphasis on impactful research dissemination and grant-funded scholarship has intensified, reinforcing my hope that CPH retains its fundamental mission of enhancing the health of Kentuckians.”

To learn more about the college's Catalyst Alumni Mentorship Program, click here.