Yesenia Merino, PhD, and Bianka Reese, PhD – both recent graduates of doctoral programs at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health – have been inducted into the Frank Porter Graham Honor Society. The Society recognizes exceptional students, faculty and staff who have contributed to the legacy of graduate education at Carolina.

Dr. Yesenia Merino (far right) at the Frank Porter Graham Honor Society Induction Ceremony in April.

Dr. Bianka Reese (second from right) and Dr. Yesenia Merino (far right) at the Frank Porter Graham Honor Society Induction Ceremony in April.

Merino was nominated for induction into the society by Gillings School faculty and leadership, including Geni Eng, DrPH, professor of health behavior; Elizabeth French, MA, assistant dean for strategic initiatives; Laura Linnan, ScD, senior associate dean of academic and student affairs; Kurt Ribisl, PhD, professor and department chair in the health behavior department; and Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor.

Eng explained the group’s drive to nominate Merino: “Yesenia entered our doctoral program with a commitment to examine and address the health effects from structural issues of race and class on communities of color. She armed herself with an impressive range of skills, not only in engaged scholarship but by applying them through meaningful service, like as developing two new public health equity courses for the School and establishing a University-wide support program for first-generation graduate students.”

The program Merino co-founded is the Carolina Grad Student F1rst Program, an initiative housed within the UNC Graduate School that provides opportunities and resources to first-generation students to support their academic success and build community.

“I had no idea I’d been nominated, so I was surprised and excited to receive word of my acceptance,” Merino said. “I do the work I do with students and communities as my primary focus, but it is both validating and humbling to feel like my work also is appreciated by leadership in the School.”

Before entering graduate school, Merino worked for a decade in the field of public health. The experience motivated her to explore how health professionals learn to work with communities of color, and how health professional practices impact health equity. Her dissertation was a mixed-methods study on how Master of Public Health students see their role as public health professionals in relation to communities of color and how curriculum development may shape public health training.

Reese, a graduate of the maternal and child health program, was nominated for induction into the society by Carolyn Halpern, PhD, professor and department chair, and Jon Hussey, PhD, assistant professor and director of graduate studies, both in the maternal and child health department.

“Bianka personifies the mission of UNC Chapel Hill to better society through teaching, research, and service,” said Hussey. “Her service to the university includes volunteering at the hospital, mentoring undergraduates from underrepresented groups, providing countless guest lectures across campus, and promoting health equity as a leader in the Minority Student Caucus.”

Reese’s research focus is adolescent and young adult sexual and reproductive health. She’s interested in the impact of positive youth development on long-term well-being, particularly for positive aspects of sexual health and romantic relationships in adulthood. She has evaluated community-based sexual health promotion, teen pregnancy prevention and other youth development programs throughout North Carolina.

“I am humbled and honored to be inducted into the Frank Porter Graham Honor Society,” Reese said. “I am a proud UNC graduate, three times over – a “Triple Tar Heel” – and through my tenure at UNC, I’ve grown very fond of the university, the students and faculty! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed opportunities to give back to the place that helped me develop into a scholar and public servant.”

During her time at the Gillings School, Reese served on the Minority Student Caucus, first as secretary and then as co-president. In the role, she led several initiatives aimed at enhancing professional and community networks among minority and first-generation graduate students.

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