Appalachian State University alumna Laura Aiken ’98 ’00 is the recipient of the Appalachian Alumni Association’s 2015 Young Alumna Award. In this video, the health care professional talks about her passion for health education and how the “holistic and complete” preparation she received at Appalachian helped her find and succeed in a career she loves.
This video played at the Appalachian Alumni Association’s Alumni Awards Ceremony held Oct. 1 in the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts as part of 2015 homecoming weekend activities. Also honored during this event were Rep. Nelson Dollar ’83 ’85 of Cary, who received the Distinguished Alumnus Award, and Reba Moretz ’52 ’53 of Boone, who received the Outstanding Service Award.
The Young Alumna Award honors individuals under age 40 for their exceptional service to the university and career accomplishments.
Aiken has a bachelor’s degree in health promotion and a master’s degree in sports management from Appalachian. She is a patient experience advisor for Press Ganey & Associates (PGA), working to improve patient experiences and outcomes in PGA’s hospitals and physician practices.
Aiken also has had a distinguished career in other healthcare positions. She was director of Advocates for Health in Action, a collaborative housed at WakeMed Health & Hospitals. She also served as a cardiac rehabilitation specialist with WakeMed. She was included in the Triangle Business Journal’s “Top 40 Under 40” in 2010 in recognition of her work in the healthcare industry.
Laura Aiken ’98 ’00: I was born right outside of Chicago in a tiny suburb called Cary and lived there until fourth grade and that’s when we moved to North Carolina. I grew up in Raleigh. I have a sister. I met my husband, Ben, at Appalachian. We have been married for 15 years and we have two little girls, Sydney and Kelsey. Sydney is 9 and Kelsey is 7. I learned about Appalachian my freshman year in high school. I was on the varsity softball team and there was a wonderful senior named Stephanie Shaffer who sort of took me under her wing and she was going to Appalachian. I thought that sounded like a great idea. I didn’t know anything about Appalachian. I went up to visit her and right away I knew that’s where I needed to be.
Being a student at Appalachian was really awesome. I think for me being at a university where the class sizes were small, where I really got to know my professors, where I got to know the students that were in my classes really well was perfectly suited for me. It’s what I needed. My undergraduate degree was in health promotion. I had a minor in athletic training, which kept me very involved with sports medicine at Appalachian. I stayed and did my graduate work in sports management. I worked hard and it was great. It was so much fun and it never felt like work. When I graduated I knew that if I wanted to have a career that made me happy I would need to find something that didn’t feel like work, and that’s what I was able to do at Appalachian.
So Press Ganey is a company that basically collects data for hospitals on patient satisfaction, patient quality and employee engagement in hospitals. My company is responsible for collecting the voice of patients and my role within the company is to work with hospitals and to take that data and turn it into action so that they can create a better experience for their patients. I recently have transitioned to the job where I work from home, so I typically find myself answering phone calls, emails, whatever is going on and responding to those types of things all day. I have always had a very keen interest in health. It started for me as a child. I saw a lot of family members and people around me get sick, young, for really preventable diseases. When I experienced those things as a child, it really made me want to do whatever I could to help people be healthy. I think as I began to study I really learned that getting children on board is where it is at. Healthy eating is very important to me and my family. My girls have grown up eating well so it’s a habit for them. It’s really rewarding and meaningful to me when I can do things that help children and children’s health specifically. Unfortunately, a lot of the schools have been cut from funding for health, physical education and those types of things.
The Poe Center really fills that gap that we have. I feel fortunate to be part of that work. The Poe Center for Health Education is a non-profit based here in Raleigh whose mission is to teach children from pre-school through about eighth grade healthy habits and healthy messages around physical activity, nutrition, drug prevention, dental health and about anything else health related. I became involved with the Poe Center when I was an employee at Wake Med. Wake Med was very involved in the community and they knew the passion I had for health education and for children. I was basically given a role there on the board of directors by virtue of my employment and it was a perfect fit. I think the way Appalachian prepared me the most is because my education was so holistic and so complete. I never focused down on one thing and just learned about one thing. Whether it was sports medicine or health promotions or whatever it was that I was studying, we looked at things broadly. I think that’s another reason why I did well. I like to be creative and think I don’t like to take a test where there is necessarily a right and wrong answer. I think that the education at Appalachian helped me with my critical thinking skills that have translated to everything I have done in my career.
It was probably the year after I graduated, maybe two years, but probably the year after I graduated I was feeling Appalachian withdrawal really bad. I called Kindsay Greene in the Alumni office and I told her I was in withdrawal and I learned quickly that if you say you want something to do at Appalachian they will give you a volunteer job very quickly. She asked me to be the president of the Triangle Chapter of the Alumni Association. I did that for a few years and then after that I moved into an officer role with the Alumni Association. That gives you a year as president. Honestly, that was one of the most fun years of my entire life. My parents always taught me to never forget where you came from and to always give back. That’s what I feel about Appalachian, it’s where I came from and I… Well, when you have a voicemail on your cellphone from the Chancellor, you know it’s either really good or really bad. When Dr. Everts left me the message that she needed to talk to me, I was really hopeful that something bad hadn’t happened. When I called and she told me I had received the award…I still don’t really believe it. It’s such an honor because… I’m sorry I’m going to cry, you can tell it means a lot.
I don’t think anyone can understand how much I love Appalachian, I really don’t, I really don’t… The fact that the university is honoring me for me loving them seems crazy, so I’m very tearful about it. I don’t know what to say.