School’s Never Out for Priscilla Oliver
Written by Georgia State University’s Office of Donor Relations
On a beautiful spring afternoon in downtown Atlanta, as students stroll through Woodruff Park thinking about how they’ll soon be done with college, Priscilla Oliver is talking about how she loved studying so much that she chose to go back for additional degrees.
“I didn’t know it at the time,” Oliver says of her early career as a fish and wildlife biologist, “but I’m not totally happy unless I’m at a school.”
Today Oliver is a life scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but she still spends plenty of time at schools — in downtown Atlanta, across the state of Georgia, and beyond. In addition to conducting site visits for the National Environmental Health and Protection Accreditation Council, which accredits environmental health programs, she also mentors aspiring medical students and spreads the gospel of environmental health in the hopes of bringing a new generation of health scientists and physicians into the field.
Oliver, who earned master’s and doctorate degrees from Georgia State, gives the school credit for introducing her to that field — and for kicking off a rewarding career that’s lasted four decades and counting. “I tell students, ‘Find something you’re passionate about so that it doesn’t feel like work.’ Before you know it, you’ve got 30, 40 years in, and it still doesn’t feel like work.”
How ‘Something Easy’ Became Something Special
Of course, Oliver admits that she wasn’t always passionate about environmental health, at least not as an undergraduate student at the University of Alabama. “When I was in college, I took a two-hour ecology class. You know how you’re looking for electives, something easy? ‘Two hours, oh, yeah, I’ll take that,’” she remembers, shaking her head and smiling.
The ecology class wasn’t exactly a breeze, but it did pique her interest. After graduating from Alabama, she spent a few years in Baltimore with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doing environmental impact studies on wetland construction projects, then worked as a fish and wildlife biologist in Brunswick, Ga.
Still, Oliver had a feeling she wasn’t done with school just yet. And in 1978, when she saw an advertisement for an EPA position in Atlanta — right down the street from a wide variety of educational opportunities — she jumped at the chance. She had wanted to live in Atlanta since coming here for the first time while a senior in high school, and says her mother and grandfather and mother told her plenty of stories about the city and relatives who lived there.
When Oliver first got to Atlanta, Georgia State was a much smaller place — “I think the school had about four buildings then,” she remembers — but it still had excellent professors. “Many of them gave me so much wisdom. The late Dr. Roland Knobel and Dr. Richard Barbe were excellent role models who served on my dissertation committee. Georgia State taught me so much about everything — I probably would’ve never gotten to know so much if I hadn’t come here.”
Sometimes knowledge came from an unexpected place, like the medical anthropology class with Charles Bitley her dissertation committee professors urged her to take. “I thought, ‘Why should I take a medical anthropology class, I’m getting ready to graduate!’” Oliver says. “But we’d go around the world looking at different health practices, how medicine works in other countries, how people view illness, how they get well. We had Vietnamese tribal healers come to class, studied Balinese healers, Eskimo medicine men . . . All of this was fun, and I came to realize why they wanted me to take that class. You know, professors are pretty smart.”
After three years of night classes, “I got the Master of Public Administration degree, got out of school, and within a year I was bored. So I turned around and went back to school,” she says, and laughs. “I was a busy person that year — working full time, taking classes, doing a residency working on the Dream Jamboree college fair with the late Jean Childs Young and Atlanta city schools, and renovating a house. But I don’t regret going to Georgia State one bit. It’s a highlight of my life here in Atlanta.”
A Mover and a Shaker, in Atlanta and Beyond
Nearly 30 years have passed since Oliver earned her doctorate degree in educational administration, but she hasn’t strayed too far from the Georgia State campus. “I love sitting in my office and looking out at Georgia State, Grady Memorial Hospital, and Turner Field — it kind of makes my day,” she says.
While her location may not have changed, Oliver hardly sounds like someone who’s settled into a routine. She has seen the scope and significance of environmental health grow steadily over the years, to the point where it now encompasses everything from restaurant health inspections to partnering with FEMA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on disaster response. “When there’s a [Hurricane] Katrina or some kind of disaster, we may be called on to make sure the water’s clean and that the land is safe,” she explains. “We deal with the quality of the air you breathe, the quality of the water you drink, the quality of the food you eat, and the quality of the land where you live. So it’s important to have all people involved, because all persons are affected.”
Oliver has also jumped at the chance to take on responsibilities beyond her office walls. A 20-year member of the National Environmental Health Association, Oliver makes frequent visits to colleges and universities to increase students’ awareness of her field’s importance — and of the many job opportunities they’ll find once they graduate. She also stays involved with her own community through Ebenezer Baptist Church and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., which honored her with a Torch Award earlier this year.
And, of course, she devotes plenty of time to school — as a teacher rather than a student. Clark Atlanta University’s Department of Public Administration honored Oliver with the Trailblazer Award for her work with students and educational programs, and she received the Anthony M. Rachal Award of Excellence from speaking and mentoring at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Oliver also maintains a faculty appointment as a professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine, where she helped start the Master of Public Health Program and wrote several grants to increase personnel and infrastructure at the school. In 1995, after being sought out by numerous Morehouse pre-med students looking to make connections with established physicians, Oliver also founded the Physician and Undergraduate Student Educational Partnerships (PAUSE) Foundation Inc.
“It’s like a mini-medical school for pre-meds,” she explains. “They get greater exposure to the science of medicine, participate in clinical assignments, shadow various doctors — pediatricians, OB-GYNs, internal medicine, family physicians, dentists, you name it.”
Still Devoted to Students
Oliver is also a life member of the Georgia State University Alumni Association, and her alma mater remains high on the list of institutions where she loves to share her time and resources. Ever since she earned her Ph.D., Oliver has been a loyal supporter of programs such as the Panther Athletic Club and Office of Black Student Achievement. As a first-generation student herself, she says she’s proud of the “powerhouse” role Georgia State has taken in reaching out to students typically underserved by the higher education system.
“I believe in supporting organizations that help people,” she says, “especially less fortunate, lower-income, underprivileged and diverse people.”
Oliver also sees Georgia State’s ongoing consolidation with Georgia Perimeter College as a golden opportunity both for students and for the field in which she works. “Many junior-college students don’t know what they want to do because they haven’t had the exposure that four-year college students get,” she explains. “We need to tell them what public health and medicine are all about.”
Who knows, maybe one of them will even have Priscilla Oliver as a lecturer. Even when she mentions retirement, she talks about it as an opportunity to spend more time in school, and expresses gratitude for the opportunity to serve.
“When I retire, I would like to teach,” she says. “One reason why I started teaching early in my career is so I could be prepared for retirement. It doesn’t feel like work to me — it’s like going to have fun every day.”