B.A. Journalism & Communication ’98
Director of Public Health, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Public Health
Hometown: Summerfield, Florida
Fun Fact: Kerre formerly lent her voice talents to the state’s emergency alert system.
With only a quick glance, Kerre Shelton’s career path seems like a hodgepodge of unrelated industries—air traffic controller, disaster relief, former associate editor of Alaska Geographic, and now director of public health for the State of Alaska. It’s a diverse résumé, and even more impressive when you learn Shelton started out as a journalism major at UAA.
“From the day the plane landed when I first came up here in the military, I knew this was home,” Shelton explained of her first foray into Alaska life. Following a two-year deployment at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Shelton returned to her native Florida to start her college career. But the pull of Alaska was undeniable, and she quickly found herself back in the 49th state enrolling at UAA.
“[Alaska] was not a place I wanted to leave and, when I did leave, I knew I needed to come back up,” she reflected. After four semesters in the Sunshine State, Shelton made the big move north the day after her second school year ended. It was the first of three long-haul drives across the continent between Daytona and Anchorage. “Three is enough,” Shelton laughs now.
After finishing her degree, Shelton set out on the obvious newsroom track expected of all journalism majors. However, the unexpected influences of fish crises and bioterrorism guided her career path in a completely new direction.
Finding public health
While still enrolled at UAA, Shelton joined the State Defense Force, an Alaska-based volunteer supplement to the federally managed National Guard. She remained active in the Force while pursuing her journalism career and had secured a spot as associate editor of Alaska Geographic when Mother Nature decided to flip Shelton’s career path.
In 1998, fish populations plummeted so severely that Gov. Tony Knowles called for a state of emergency in Western Alaska. The State Defense Force mobilized and Shelton left her editorial desk temporarily to help alleviate the massive unraveling financial crisis. “I was literally handing fish to people at their doorsteps,” Shelton said of her role assisting remote subsistence-reliant villages.
The fish crisis eventually ended, but the State Defense Force found Shelton’s communication skills indispensible and continued contacting her for additional assistance. Communication is key in managing any crisis, and Shelton eventually transitioned her journalism degree into a role with Homeland Security, serving as the voice of emergency management across the state. In the wake of 9/11, the Public Health office came calling—the medical-minded staff needed a communications expert to project information about the state’s new bioterrorism program. She’s been in public health ever since.
Returning to campus
It turns out Shelton’s most valuable class at UAA was also the one she tried hardest to avoid. Public Speaking—the dreaded requirement of students everywhere. Fortunately enough, Shelton ended up in a public speaking course with Professor Jo Gottschalk, kicking off a long professional relationship between the two. In fact, Shelton has returned to Gottschalk’s public speaking class several times to talk about applying the course in the real world. “I tell her class this all the time now, but [public speaking] was a class that I put off going to,” Shelton reflected. “But it was a hoot. I learned so much in that class.”
A background in communications and journalism from UAA has since elevated Shelton to the top tiers of state government and health. “People ask me all the time, ‘So, what’s your medical degree in?’” Shelton said, “but I don’t have one of those. What got me this job, what keeps me in this job, and what keeps me successful in this job is my ability to communicate with people.”
“My whole world revolves around communicating, advocating, negotiating, mediating, and it’s all about getting the message across to the right person,” Shelton said.
A vast staff for a vast state
The medical field is cluttered with six-syllable words, but clear and concise communication is absolutely vital to ensure preventive care in public health. “We consider ourselves to be change agents in public health,” Shelton explained. “It’s our job to change the culture of the state so that people choose to do healthier things.”
The bulk of the effort in public health is education and outreach, so serious and costlier medical conditions can be prevented. Public health departments nationwide cover the same topics, such as water fluoridation, bike helmets and gun safety, but a state as unique as Alaska presents a slate of unique challenges. No other state has to contend with the needs of so many isolated communities, such limited road access, and so many diverse (and occasionally even unwritten) languages.
“We have public health nurses all over the state,” Shelton explained, “but there are some real geographically isolated communities in the state and we have to get really creative in how to best reach out to them.” The solution—create and maintain a statewide network of community partners, advocacy groups, grantees and as many people as possible to help carry messages and programs across the state.
From her Anchorage office, Shelton oversees a staff of 500 medical experts scattered across the remotest pockets of The Great Land, from nurses in Nome to statisticians in Sitka. Even Jo Gottschalk, her former professor, is one of her employees. With such a large crew in such a large space, Shelton has never even met many of her employees, but she makes sure the system works. “It is amazing the wealth of knowledge these individuals have,” Shelton said of her statewide staff. “Everybody has their niche and I make sure they’re all going in the same direction.“
The path Shelton started at UAA has led her to all corners of the state and, in indirect fashion, to her current role as director of public health. “It’s an interesting chain of events, but it’s that communication piece that carries all the way through,” she said of the UAA impact threading through her vast and varied career.
Although public health didn’t cross her radar until long after graduation, it’s the perfect fit today. “It’s fascinating,” Shelton said. “There is never a dull day in public health.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement.