Interdisciplinary program teaches students, community about disaster sciences

At Tougaloo College, an interdisciplinary minor is helping prepare students for careers in homeland security-related fields.

Dr. Meherun Laiju is leading the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project, “Institutionalization, Expansion, and Enhancement of Interdisciplinary Minor: Disaster and Coastal Studies,” which will expand the role of Geographic Information System (GIS) and other skills and undergraduate research opportunities within the curriculum of an existing Disaster and Coastal Studies minor. The project will also create a certificate program for anyone – whether or not they are enrolled students – looking to broaden their knowledge of community resilience.

“Our goals are three-fold,” Dr. Laiju said. “Train undergraduate students in interdisciplinary skills necessary to mitigate natural and man-made coastal hazards through research, training and coursework; neighborhood outreach initiatives in collaboration with Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA); and create a professional certificate program.

Dr. Meherun Laiju (front row, third from left) with Tougaloo College faculty and students in the Disaster and Coastal Studies minor.
Dr. Meherun Laiju (front row, third from left) with Tougaloo College faculty and students in the Disaster and Coastal Studies minor.

“The certificate program will prepare undergraduates to join a workforce related to DHS and emergency management agencies. The neighborhood outreach initiative will offer opportunities for community leaders and interested citizens to be trained as first responders which will help in preparing resilient communities.”

The Disaster and Coastal Studies minor was launched through the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence, the Department of Homeland Security-funded predecessor of the CRC. Faculty members from physics, sociology, psychology and political science departments introduced students to disaster-related research through a variety of fields and are currently working to expand the program.

Students’ careers impacted

Tougaloo College, located in Jackson, Miss., is a private historically black college, and the majority of students are the first generation of their families to attend college. The project will build homeland security capacity for this Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), to build capacity for the future homeland security workforce, and prepare students for graduate schools and research programs in the field of coastal natural disasters, including those that are part of the CRC.

Irenia Ball, a senior at Tougaloo who is pursuing a minor in Disaster and Coastal Studies, is a native of New Orleans, which faced large-scale changes after Hurricane Katrina impacted the city in 2005. Ball said her experience during and after Katrina partly influenced her decision to pursue the minor and a graduate degree in similar subjects.

“Going through Katrina has pushed me to help others, specifically to learn more about natural disasters and how to help people prepare for them,” Ball said.

Taralyn Rowell, a 2016 graduate of Tougaloo who also obtained a minor from the DCS program, said the DCS courses and related internships helped her form her career plans. Those include finishing her Master of Social Work degree at Alabama A&M University.

“The wonderful experience I gained while taking various classes and interning with organizations [including the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and American Red Cross] has opened a new career path for me,” Rowell said. “Before becoming involved with DCS, I was unaware how broad the field of natural disasters was. I am now interested in working with natural disasters and am very appreciative for the various types of exposure I’ve been able to gain through the program.”

Tougaloo students learn about emergency management practices in a class that is part of the Disaster and Coastal Studies curriculum.
Tougaloo students learn about emergency management practices in a class that is part of the Disaster and Coastal Studies curriculum.

About 70 students are enrolled in six courses each academic year. Of those students, about a dozen are placed in summer internships, and the project also funds student merit awards and faculty research projects. Each year, students and faculty members from the program participate in a DCS Symposium, which to showcase student research in this field of study.

In the first year of the project, students were placed in internships with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security, The Salvation Army, American Red Cross and Hinds County (Miss.) Emergency Management.

Making the program interdisciplinary

Dr. Laiju said she hopes the interdisciplinary minor will be unique for an educational curriculum in that it approaches the study of the nature of natural disasters from a social science perspective. It will focus on social aspects of disaster events and the organizational issues tied to preparedness, planning and managing events.

The program focuses on preparing students for emergency planning, management and response careers while also preparing them to pursue graduate studies, Dr. Laiju said, and should produce students prepared to work specifically at the federal Department of Homeland Security and similar state and local-level agencies.

“The interdisciplinary approach provides an opportunity for students to be trained in fields across academic divisions (Natural Science and Social Science), which is uncommon in small, historically black colleges,” Dr. Laiju said. “The collaboration helps students be trained in these critical needs areas with highly portable skills necessary to succeed in high-impact careers —creating a more diverse future workforce.”

“People living in a community are most often the first responders in a disaster, and Tougaloo College can play an integral role in this task as it is known for its community-preparedness focus.”

Faculty members from Physics, Sociology Psychology and Political Science departments will be collaboratively involved in undergraduate course modification and development of the certificate program for the community at large. Faculty invite guest speakers from emergency management agencies to help students develop an understanding of practical application of the subject matter; two of the courses are actually taught by local emergency management personnel.

Since beginning the program in 2010, there has been a 75 percent increase in the number of students that have declared minors under the Tougaloo College DCS minor, Dr. Laiju said.

CERTIFICATE PROGRAM

Tougaloo College students pose with awards from the annual Disaster and Coastal Studies Symposium, which features student presentations and guest lectures.
Tougaloo College students pose with awards from the annual Disaster and Coastal Studies Symposium, which features student presentations and guest lectures.

The professional certificate program, which is still being developed, will be designed for students who want to join the workforce immediately after completing their undergraduate degree.

A pilot study, the Neighborhood Outreach Initiative, aims to strengthen community resilience from disasters. The study targets a neighborhood in the greater Jackson area, to train key personnel – street captains, church and business leaders and school administrators, among others – to develop a citizen first responder group. This group would coordinate to respond within the community in the event of a disaster.

Training will include a background on the Incident Command System and National Incident Management System, both used by professional emergency managers. It will also cover preparing home emergency kits, running hazard scenarios and cover volunteer responsibilities.

“Mississippi has limited resources and is highly vulnerable to different types of natural disasters,” Dr. Laiju said. “Post-disaster recovery does not happen automatically. Strong, well-informed support systems help mitigate and promote recovery processes to attain the same or an enhanced state of readiness post-disaster. People living in a community are most often the first responders in a disaster, and Tougaloo College can play an integral role in this task as it is known for its community-preparedness focus.”