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Taking the lead: Donna Petersen spearheads COVID-19 response across campuses

With the childhood goal of growing into a strong, independent woman, USF COVID-19 Task Force Donna Petersen’s ambitions, leadership skills and long list of accomplishments have more than fulfilled what she set out to become. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

This story is part of a continuing series that features women leaders at USF during Women’s History Month.

Inspired by generations of courageous women from her family, Donna Petersen knew since she was a child that no challenge would be too big for her if she worked hard enough — a mentality that led her to become a leader in public health.

Petersen grew up listening to the story of how her grandmother left Norway to start an independent life in New York City without her parent’s permission as a teenager. Her grandmother started her own family in the Big Apple, something that always amazed Petersen. She was determined to be an independent and strong woman like the stories from her family had inspired her to be.

“I was actually told, ‘You are a descendant from a long line of women who are really strong and who were courageous and brave,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, well, I must be that,’” Petersen said. “It’s just great stories about the things that they did, these women did. Just amazing.”

Raised in an economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, her experiences sparked a curiosity in Petersen about people’s roles in a community. She studied behavioral sciences at Drew University, and after completing her degree she juggled working as a cook in a neighborhood bar and grill, serving cocktails in a country club and counseling homeless youth in crisis at the same time. 

She started looking for graduate schools when she stumbled upon Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health — now named Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — and she became attracted to the idea of studying communities and what contributes to their health. 

When she found out she did not qualify for the program, she wrote with determination a letter to the university explaining her interest in joining its public health program. The administration wrote back telling her about a new program they had for people who were not physicians, nurses, nutritionists, social workers or lawyers like her, and she got in. 

“It was actually really fun to go there and be surrounded by people who had so much experience and other degrees and of course, they were all older, I was very young,” Petersen said. “But it was fun, it was great, I soaked all of it up. I loved public health from the moment I found it and have gone from there.”

She ended up earning a master’s and doctoral degree in maternal and child health at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and went on to serve as director of the Division of Family Health at the Minnesota Department of Health. 

She also held leadership positions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health before coming to USF, where she is the current dean of USF’s College of Public Health and USF’s COVID-19 response task force chairwoman.

“I’ve been really fortunate … to have had those really good experiences and have been able to … take that all in,” Petersen said. “I just feel like I’ve been in this very blessed position to just have had great leaders that I’ve worked for, to have worked with great leaders and to have seen in my own work that it makes a difference.” 

As chair of the COVID-19 response task force, she has been essential to guiding the university through the pandemic and has made important decisions regarding how USF can adapt its operations under coronavirus restrictions. With the goal of ensuring the health and safety of her community in times of crisis, she has stayed motivated to continue growing in the field. 

“It’s been said that public health is both a profession and a goal … It’s a societal goal for people to be healthy and remain healthy and enjoy a healthy quality of life and have children that are healthy … to me, that goal is so important,” Petersen said.

“We have to keep working, even if it’s just small steps, every step is important. And so how we create supportive societies, that to me is … a great field to be in, it’s a really exciting field to be in. You’re really trying to improve people’s lives.”

Striving to help others is one of the staples of Petersen’s living, according to one of her six children, Morgan Alexander, who described her mother as an energetic and vibrant person. They became very close when Alexander’s father passed away when she was in middle school. 

“My older sister, Kerry, went to college soon after, so for all of high school, it was just me and my mom living together,” she said. “So I have a very unique relationship with her, and it really was just the two of us. And she’s been my role model forever. She’s amazing.”

Petersen encouraged Alexander to pursue her dreams no matter what they were. When she said she wanted to be a baker, she was there for her, and when she wanted to go to law school, she was there as well. Especially when Alexander was going through tough personal times, she felt unconditional support from her mother.

“She was a champ,” Alexander said. “And was there for me both in a way a parent should be, but also [there were] moments where she would like to step up to be a friend, someone I could talk to and someone I could confide in.”

Alexander’s older sister Kerry also likes spending quality time with Petersen as she picked up a love for music and art from her. Now, Kerry plays in the band Bad Bad Hats and Petersen shows her support by going to her concerts.

“She played piano [and] viola when she was younger [and] she still does,” Kerry said. “So I think that has always been a part of my life. But also, maybe more importantly, she always was playing music in the house. We are listening to various CDs, making dinner and running around and dancing, that kind of thing.” 

Their love for music led them to share the stage of First Avenue, a recognized venue in Minneapolis. For Petersen’s birthday, Kerry surprised her by inviting her to sing in one of her shows and they did a cover of “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by The Beatles. Kerry was surprised to see how calm Petersen was while performing.

“I was amazed because I’ve played hundreds of shows at this point, but I still get really nervous before I go on stage,” Kerry said. “But she didn’t seem nervous at all. I mean, I guess she’s in a leadership role, so I know, she gives talks and stuff, but I would have been nervous about it if I was walking onto a big stage about to sing a song in front of 1,400 people. But, it was no big deal for her. She just took it in stride.” 

That energy Petersen brought to the stage is something her colleagues at USF said stands out about her. Vice Provost for Strategic Planning, Performance and Accountability Theresa Chisolm said she “lightens [up] the room when she comes in.” 

She described Petersen as well-versed in balancing the responsibilities that come with all of her roles in life as a teacher, mother, spouse and dean.

“Dr. Petersen is the optimal balance of professionalism in all areas of [being] a professor and administrator,” Chisolm said. “So she balances the teaching, the research, the service with administration and with being a parent and a spouse, and she gifts to her community both through her profession and just in general.”

Through her example, Petersen inspired Chisolm to pursue an administrative role to make a greater impact in the USF community. She said it’s been beneficial to her own career to have the guidance of another woman who takes care of business in the office and at home.

“As a mom, it’s nice to have another professional woman who has achieved a great deal that I can reach out to, to talk as a mom,” Chisolm said. “So the balance that we have to have as faculty for teaching, doing research, doing community service, and then you add on administration, it’s nice to have someone like Dean Petersen who’s been so successful that I can talk to.” 

Sidney Fernandes, USF’s system vice president for technology and chief information officer, has also had the opportunity to work with Petersen in the university’s COVID-19 response task force. He said he has enjoyed collaborating with her because of her creative perspectives on how to address problems.

“[She] has had very broad, and I would say, thoughtful visionary views of how you can use, for example, technology to solve problems in both the public health arena and broader,” Fernandes said. 

“I’ve always looked to Donna as understanding where things can be done differently. She’s a thoughtful leader, visionary and also very well-informed on how, in my case, technology can be used to solve problems.” 

Besides her insightful views, Petersen has also taught Fernandes the importance of listening in leadership roles.

“In leadership it’s important to listen and I’ve learned that,” he said. “And I think she taught me how you can be authentic as a leader … She’s a very authentic person, she comes across as real … And sometimes she’s authentic enough to let you know that when things are not going well, it’s still OK.” 

Being strong, confident, authentic and independent like her family raised her to be are among the lessons Petersen has taught to the people she’s crossed paths with. Alexander said Petersen has inspired her to believe in herself and will never forget the moment she told her what being a mother meant to her. 

“I was living in Washington state and I came home for Mother’s Day. I hadn’t seen her in quite a few months, and I asked her what being a mom meant to her,” Alexander said. “And she said being a mom is loving unconditionally. I always think about that. It’s just love. It’s being there for them. I think that represents her very well — loving unconditionally.”