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BYU Commencement Speaker

Outstanding Honors graduate Alyssa Baer represents the graduates at Commencement this week

Honors congratulates Alyssa Baer as the Outstanding Honors Graduate for 2021! Alyssa will represent the University’s graduates as the student speaker at BYU’s Commencement exercises this week. As an outstanding student-scholar, Alyssa exemplifies the mission of the Honors Program and is a broad thinker, creative problem solver, and influential leader. While her academic and research record is impressive, her compassion and service really define her undergraduate experience.

Alyssa is majoring in Public Health with an emphasis in Health Promotion and minoring in Digital Humanities and Technology. Named the 2020 BYU Public Health Promotion Student of the year, she was featured in the Lead Article on Women in STEM in the 2020 BYU President’s report. She is the recipient of many scholarships including Peery Student Life, BYU Academic, and Prudential Spirit of Community State finalist. She has published in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and presented in different professional conferences, and recently defended her Honors thesis, “Mothers Without Borders Program Evaluation: Establishing Effective Program Evaluation and Assessing the Impact of Holistic Orphan Care” where she evaluated how the program works with local organizations to empower women and care for vulnerable children. Her work focused on the orphanage and primary school located on the organization’s property in Lusaka West, Zambia. Now an Impact Evaluation specialist for Mothers Without Borders, Alyssa will travel to Zambia this summer to present her thesis research and help implement her recommendations.

During her undergraduate education Alyssa constantly looked for opportunities to give back and to help others. She has been a teaching assistant for multiple courses: Health Promotion, Introduction to Program Planning and Implementation and Evaluation, and Evaluation Methods. She enjoys mentoring and hopes to continue that in the future. She has also interned as a neurofeedback therapy technician at the RISE marriage and Family Therapy Clinic here in Orem. She volunteered in different organizations within Utah Valley such as the BYU Center for Service and Learning, Ballard Center for Social Impact, Primary Children’s Medical Center Outpatient Clinic, Shriner’s Hospital for Children, and Hartvigsen School for Adults with disabilities.

Recently we caught up with Alyssa and asked her to share her insights about her Honors experience at BYU:

Q: As an outstanding student-scholar and Honors graduate, you exemplify the mission of the Honors Program.  What Honors experiences helped you develop these traits?
A: The thing that drew me to the Honors Program was the interdisciplinary focus—and that remained my favorite part of the program. In each of my Unexpected Connections classes, I really enjoyed approaching a topic from multiple perspectives and ideologies. My favorite Unexpected Connections class was my Race & Music class with Drs. Rugh and Howard. It was amazing to see how we could use creativity to find unique ways to understand the social problems around us. I think this class was also impactful because it showed me that in order to be broad thinkers and influential leaders, we have to have a willingness to listen. Dr. Rugh continually made time and space for students to share their experiences—allowing us to learn from one another. Each of these Unexpected Connections classes pushed me to go beyond the text-book answers and consider the interconnected nature of the problems around us.

Q:  You have an impressive academic record.  What achievement is most meaningful to you and why?
A: I have loved opportunities to apply what I learned in my classes to real life experiences in things like the SOPHE National Case Competition and, probably most meaningfully, my internships and thesis work with Mothers Without Borders. After going to Zambia with them in 2019, completing my honors thesis with MWB became rooted in so much more than academics since I had seen and worked with the people these programs were impacting. It has been so impactful to work with our local staff to design an evaluation that is already being implemented and helping them in their work. This experience has really shown me the direction I want to take in both my career and my personal interactions with others. On top of that, I’ve had the chance to work with an incredible team. Both my supervisor—Tanner Crandall—and my thesis advisor—Dr. Ali Crandall—have become mentors in my professional development as well as in my personal life. Our evaluation team at MWB has been so incredible and each day I work with them, I can tell I am becoming a better person.

Q:  What has been your favorite part of the Honors experience?
A: My favorite part of the Honors experience was the interdisciplinary focus and being able to bring that focus into my thesis. In the first Honors lecture class, we had the chance to hear from professors throughout campus and see the unique ways that they approach solving problems. I love how the Honors Program pushes us to ask questions and look for innovative and interdisciplinary ways to approach finding solutions. One of my greatest takeaways from my undergraduate experience is how interconnected and complex the social problems around us are—and I think to find sustainable solutions, working together across disciplines is key. I think being able to study a little bit of graphic design and web development in my minor, and then business approaches to social impact through the Ballard Center, has really increased my ability to work in public health effectively. Then, being able to design a program evaluation for Mothers Without Borders by bringing together the social impact and public health disciplines has been such a fulfilling experience as I apply that approach myself. Finally, the interdisciplinary approach has been a huge influence in deciding what would be next for me. I knew I wanted to pursue graduate education, and knew that I wanted to be in a place that would support interdisciplinary work.

Q: You’ve been able to do a lot of research during your time as a student. Tell us about one or two of the coolest projects you worked on while at BYU and the opportunities you’ve had to share your research.
A: My thesis project was definitely the largest opportunity for research I’ve had. This project had a lot of moving parts—navigating cultural competency, bringing together multiple disciplines, and trying to communicate with our local staff and implement these new protocols during the pandemic. I have learned so much from this project as we’ve had to pivot and adapt regularly. Completing and defending my thesis will remain one of the highlights of my undergrad—it was so fulfilling and exciting to see the things I’ve studied in classes all come together to help a population that I love.

Another favorite research opportunity has been a study I’m completing with fellow Honors student, Ida Tovar, and Dr. Robbie Chaney in the Public Health Department. We are studying nighttime commuter safety for female college students, with the goal of providing increased understanding to how we can better support women on our campuses. Dr. Chaney has been an incredible mentor in allowing Ida and I to take the lead on this project and learn through each stage—from submitting an IRB to collecting and analyzing the data and presenting out findings. I’m so grateful for everything I’ve learn both from Dr. Chaney and Ida.

Q: The Honors Program Executive Committee named altruism and community outreach as defining characteristics of you and your work. How does altruism play a role in your academic work? Where did that desire to help people come from?
A: So much of that desire came from my family and experiences growing up. I remember watching my mom especially as she was constantly involved in service. Whether in our ward, schools, or things like Festival of Trees, she was constantly involved in serving other people and would often invite my sisters and I to join her. I grew up seeing her make time for people, and that has always stayed with me.

I became heavily involved in service during high school and loved working with and learning from people who had had experiences different from my own. When I got to BYU, I knew I wanted that to remain a big focus in my life. So, in a lot of ways, I think it has become a motivating factor behind the work I’ve been involved in. I can tell that I am much more passionate and motivated in my work when I have come to know and love the people that creating programs or evaluations for.

Q: This was a particularly interesting year for Public Health professionals and students.  Tell us a little about the role of Public Health in today’s world, and how the pandemic changed your perspective.
A: I think the pandemic has changed all of our perspectives in one way or another. Being in public health during this pandemic has been a really interesting experience and I think it has demonstrated how the problems we face as a society are incredibly complex and interwoven. The pandemic helped to show me how important public health is in promoting health and protecting our communities, but it also has shown me how difficult that can be in practice and how we have to come together as a community and make some hard decisions about where to place our focus. I’ve been so proud to be part of a profession that has stepped up and helped develop community campaigns, organize testing and vaccination efforts, and focus on the mental and emotional well-being of the community.

Like many students, this year I experienced setbacks with internships, canceled plans, concerns for my family’s health, and a senior year that was very different than I had ever imagined. I think so much of overcoming that and still loving my senior year was due to the people I was able to work with and the optimistic spirit that they helped me to have.

Q: Looking back on your Honors experience, what advice would you give to other Honors students?
A: Get involved! My classes helped me to gain skills, knowledge, and opportunities, but it was the experiences working in the community that helped me to find my passion and my drive for what I want to do next. The other thing I would suggest is to find a mentor—someone who can help you navigate things academically, but also personally as you figure out who you are and what you want to do. Being able to learn from and work closely with people like Dr. Robbie Chaney, Dr. Ali Crandall, and Tanner Crandall has allowed me to grow not only academically and professionally, but also personally and spiritually.

Q: What’s next for you? What are you hoping to do with your BYU education going forward?
A: I am looking forward to spending this summer working and enjoying a little break before starting graduate school in the fall! I’ll be working as the impact evaluation specialist for Mothers Without Borders to continue the development of these evaluations. This fall, I will be attending George Washington University to pursue a Master of Public Health with a concentration in Maternal and Child Health. I’m excited to take everything I’ve learned at BYU and bring that to a new program and community!