Dear Gillings community,

As I look back at the month of October, my foremost thoughts are of people. Members of our Chapel Hill community who I’ve come to know well, people I’ve met across North Carolina who are doing the good work of public health and strangers halfway around the world who are suffering intensely.

Since October 12, when I last wrote about the attack on Israel, the situation in Palestine has changed dramatically. The violence in the Middle East has remained top-of-mind every day for me and so many others, and I have spent numerous hours over the past weeks meeting with Gillings community members to make sure I am hearing your concerns about both the violence overseas and its effects on people in our School.

My top three takeaways from these conversations are:
1. The importance of our community. The Gillings School’s statement of core values includes this sentence: “We believe that all people should be treated with civility, dignity and respect.” We must take care of one another. I, too, am struggling with the proper reaction to this impossibly complex issue, but I know that it is possible to identify with one side of the conflict and still feel profound sorrow and compassion for the terrible losses on the other side.

2. The importance of student feedback. I am grateful to the leaders of our Minority Student Caucus and Student Government Association for bringing a range of concerns that they have heard from fellow students to my attention. I also have been made aware of student comments through the funnel of faculty and staff — students, when you speak, people listen. Your thoughts matter deeply to us.

3. The importance of safety and well-being. It is a natural extension of our School values to say that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have no place within our community. These words posted by The Elders on October 25 resonate with me:

The Palestinian and Israeli peoples are intertwined by history, geography, and legacies of sacrifice and suffering. The current crisis has sparked unimaginable pain and trauma on both sides, which demands the world’s compassion and respect. Israeli and Palestinian lives are of equal worth.

As you process ongoing world events, I want to call your attention to a campus gathering happening November 6 from 4-5 p.m. in 109 Fetzer Hall. The UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies and the Program for Public Discourse will co-host an event for students, staff and faculty on the theme, “War in Gaza: A Discussion of Origins, Strategy and Ethics.

Other events designed to help our community process the events of the day are in their planning stages, and we will share the details with you once they are finalized.

In the meantime, please reach out to friends, family, colleagues, advisors and instructors if you need a wise sounding board — and offer your friendship and support to others. Professional help may be found through the following channels:

· For employees: UNC-Chapel Hill Employee Assistance Program

· For students: UNC Counseling and Psychological Services — For urgent concerns, please call their 24/7 emergency line at (919) 966-3658.

Many experts predict that the violence may continue for many months, so it will be more important than ever that we maintain the integrity of our community. I promise I will work my hardest every day to do so.

Amid the tragedy, it offers me some hope to know that the work of public health goes on.

The Gillings School continues to train public health leaders of tomorrow. In the past month, I’ve had several meaningful opportunities to witness our alumni and other collaborators at work across the state of North Carolina. I am trying to live the core values referenced above as I tell the story of our School to people I meet and learn about exciting new ways our Gillings network can support local communities.

Last month, I toured the eastern half of N.C. on the Tar Heel Bus Tour and learned how Carolina research makes a tangible difference for people living in the state. The point of the tour is to connect UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and staff with the citizens we serve and the towns and cities many of our students call home. It was incredibly inspiring to see interdisciplinary teams working to filter PFAS out of local water sources, mediate the impacts of climate change, fight misinformation and so much more.

Later in October, I also traveled west to Asheville and visited the Mountain Area Health Education Center, which co-offers our joint Master of Public Health concentration in Place-Based Health. This program equips the next generation of public health advocates with skills in justice-oriented relationships and community-driven solutions that bridge the gap between research and practice. As with the bus tour, I walked away feeling renewed hope about the future of our state and world.

Still, my greatest inspiration comes from within the walls of Gillings. Recently, I met with the leaders of several student organizations to address accessibility and equity; spoke with our advisory board, foundation board and Rosenau Society donors to discuss the future of our School; and joined the Minority Student Caucus for a “Demystifying the Dean” event.

I’ve also been meeting with groups of faculty through a ‘Dining with the Dean’ series and I am scheduled to share a meal with central administrative unit staff in December. I look forward to additional conversations with faculty, staff and students that enable me to support the upward trajectory of the Gillings community as we work closely to effect ever more positive change.

I want to acknowledge that we have all lived through an incredibly trying first semester. Still, when I sit in my office and hear the excited voices of students moving between classes, it serves as a vivid reminder that we are a strong, supportive community, continuously striving to overcome adversity. We really are better together.

Nancy Messonnier, MD
Dean and Bryson Distinguished Professor in Public Health
UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

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