When the White House Calls

The Biden administration wasted no time tapping this alum

Karen Dahl ’99 (CLAS) speaking with AmeriCorps leaders outside New York City Hall in April.

Karen Dahl ’99 (CLAS) speaking with AmeriCorps leaders outside New York City Hall in April.

For Karen Dahl ’99 (CLAS), lead architect of the Biden administration’s ambitious Public Health AmeriCorps job-training initiative, the path to a presidential appointment began with a chance encounter one spring day during her senior year. A few weeks shy of graduation, Dahl was crossing campus and happened upon an informational table for AmeriCorps, the federal agency for volunteering and community service. A double English and French major who’d helped start UConn’s women’s club soccer team, Dahl intended to go on to law school. But first she wanted to try living and working in Manhattan.

“Growing up in Danbury, I had always wanted to move to New York right after I graduated,” she says. After talking to the AmeriCorps reps, Dahl took home an application — “the internet was a baby thing, we still used paper” — checked off education as her area of interest and New York as her preferred destination, and dropped it in the mail. A round of interviews later, she was accepted into the program and assigned to Jumpstart, an AmeriCorps partner providing educational support to young children in underserved communities. She did everything from training college students in early childhood reading to creating partnerships with local businesses, Dahl says of her year of service.

Flash forward two decades to the fall of 2020. A senior administrator at the corporate training enterprise Guild Education with a master’s degree from Harvard and years of nonprofit leadership experience, Dahl takes a phone call. It’s the Biden transition team. Would she be interested in a position?

Make It Happen

The administration brought her in on day one as Senior Advisor for Covid-19 at AmeriCorps. On day two, President Biden signed an executive order to create a public health job corps. Dahl’s task: Figure out how to make it all happen. Fast.

“We got on the phone with a lot of different agencies to try to imagine what the program would look like,” she says. “What makes sense? How could this work? Very quickly we landed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and started building a partnership.”

Public Health AmeriCorps, a collaboration that leverages the CDC’s expertise in public health and Ameri­Corps’ track record of job training, launched last May. It aims to recruit, train, and deploy new workers from coast to coast to support the country’s chronically understaffed public health system. The program’s twofold goal would be to provide immediate short-term relief in neglected communities while simultaneously opening pathways to meaningful careers in public health to a generation of workers. These recruits would not be doctors and health policy professionals but street-level service providers: vaccine clinic staffers, community outreach specialists, communicable disease investigators, companions to isolated seniors, mental health advocates. For many trainees it would be a first professional experience.

The agency has recruited a first wave of nearly 3,000 members who soon will begin service with public health departments and private service agencies in vulnerable communities around the country. Their assignments will last from nine months to a year, during which time they will receive a living allowance while gaining marketable skills.

Home Base

Some 50 members of this initial cohort, Dahl notes, will be doing mental health training with the Connecticut-based nonprofit Health 360. “Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated existing health inequities. We’re very much focused on getting services into those communities that need them the most. On the workforce-development side, our goal is to expand the scope of what public health work can look like. We’re providing national-level training, so everyone who completes this program will get a foundation in public health. I’m really hopeful that this is the first step in what is possible for the future of public health.”

A first step for a new kind of federal partnership. But for Dahl, the continuation of a journey that began years ago in Storrs. “There’s a joke that once you are part of AmeriCorps, you can never leave,” Dahl says. “But I never imagined when I stopped at that table it would lead to a presidential appointment.”

By Kevin Markey
Photo by Peter Morenus

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