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Always encouraged by her mother to help those in need, Kristy Coyle ’22 harnessed those values as she pursued a degree in community health at SUNY Potsdam. Her internships and faculty mentorship opportunities reinforced her educational experiences—as she looked ahead to a career focused on assisting the less fortunate and educating the community about health disparities.

“My mom is really passionate about helping other people, giving anything that you can, whenever you can, and she thinks that community health is a really good field. She urged me to consider the community health program, and I really enjoyed it,” Coyle said.

“I love all the professors here. They really care about student success and mentorship / research opportunities with students." -Kristy Coyle '22 

Coyle, who graduated summa cum laude, was also a Presidential Scholar at the College. Her senior year, she completed a research project focused on food insecurity, which culminated with her organizing a food insecurity and nutrition education conference at the College. Collaborating with several local organizations like the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and GardenShare, she oversaw the day-long event on campus.

A leader in public health education, the CCE helps inform the community about SNAP benefits—providing people with the knowledge and tools to buy healthy groceries on a limited budget—and GardenShare works with farmers to make SNAP benefits available at local farmers’ markets. “The Cornell Cooperative Extension did a workshop with students on meal prepping and budgeting. A big goal for the conference was to bridge the campus with the community, so I wanted to have a panel of faculty, students, and community members that could answer questions regarding food security,” she said.

Guided by her faculty mentor Sarah Lister, the assistant chair for the Department of Public Health and Human Performance, Coyle examined the causes and effects of food insecurity as part of her Presidential Scholars research project. “Sarah was always been there for me in my journey through community health, food security, and the Presidential Scholars Program. She inspired me every day because she always does so many good things for other people,” she said.

In addition to her role as the community health internship coordinator, Lister oversees the College’s food pantry operations on campus, something that Coyle was introduced to when started the community health program. “I really wanted to share that with other students, to get more people involved, and to help students struggling with food insecurity,” Coyle said.

After growing up in the North Country, and attending Potsdam High School, Coyle enrolled at SUNY Potsdam in the fall of 2018. From swimming in the Maxcy Hall pool to walking around campus in her youth, she was already very familiar with the College, and decided to stay close to home to save money and be close to her family. “It just felt really comfortable,” she said. “A big deciding factor was that I really didn’t want to have loans. I got a really good financial aid package.”

Starting out she explored several different majors, before finding her calling within the community health program—a perfect fit for someone interested in helping others. “I love all the professors here. They really care about student success and mentorship / research opportunities with students, and I think that’s really important for student learning,” Coyle said. “I also like the small classes, so you get that opportunity to build relationships with your professors.”

During her final semester, Coyle completed back-to-back internships, parlaying what she’s learned in the classroom into real-world opportunities. Starting on campus, she worked as an intern in the Department of Public Health and Human Performance, where one of her initiatives focused on outreach to local high schools, and meeting with incoming exploratory students at SUNY Potsdam to talk about the benefits of the community health program. “The project that I was most excited about was starting a Basic Needs Hub, which is kind of similar to a food pantry, but it’s more like hygiene, toothpaste, deodorant, different things that students might need if they either don’t have the money for it, or don’t have the means to get to the store,” she said.

Halfway through the semester, she transitioned off campus for an internship at A.A. Kingston Middle School in Potsdam. Coyle worked in a seventh-grade classroom every day, assisting their health education teacher by creating lesson plans, teaching, and grading papers. When she graduated, she landed a job as a full-time SNAP Nutrition Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County. "I travel all over both St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties to provide nutrition education for SNAP eligible individuals of all ages," she said.

Coyle is also now in the process of completing her master's degree in community health, a fully online program that allows her to balance a fulltime job and academics. “There are lot of different ways that you can help other people with a community health degree. Beyond food security, you have people suffering from domestic violence, mental health and a bunch of other things,” she said. “I think it’s really important for people to do good things for others, especially in this time where there’s a lot division and a lot of stress.”

Article and photos by Jason Hunter