For MTSU Health and Human Performance professor Chandra Russell Story, her faith “is the cornerstone of who I am and everything that I do, and I’ll ever be.”
A licensed minister at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Story also is a deeply accomplished scholar in the field of public health and was honored for her years of teaching, research and service as the 2023 recipient of the John Pleas Faculty Recognition Award, the highest honor for Black faculty on the MTSU campus.
Story received her award before a full house of family, friends, colleagues, fellow church members and other supporters from across the university community during a special ceremony Feb. 21 at the MT Center inside the Sam Ingram Building.
The special plaque is bestowed annually during Black History Month in honor of acclaimed psychology Professor Emeritus John Pleas — pronounced “Plez” — and for the first time this year included a $3,000 cash award.
You can watch a short video recap of the ceremony below.
After accepting the award, Story shared the story of how her parents were active participants in the civil rights movement — her mother a Freedom Rider and her father, who was in attendance with her stepmother, facing the water hoses of white segregationists. Both marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle for equal rights for Black Americans.
Both went on to become educators, too — her father also became an entrepreneur — and “continued their legacy of justice through education and service” in completing their master’s degrees while raising their three children.
Their example prompted Story to pursue her own career in public health, earning both her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and her master’s at Boise State University. She joined the MTSU family in 2017 after teaching at Oklahoma State and coordinating grants at Idaho State University and became a full MTSU professor in fall 2022.
“I turned to teaching as an act of social justice. I wanted to share with students the things that I had learned and the things I had seen in three or four different states,” she said. “I wanted them to understand the patients on the south side of Chicago who were having difficulty communicating with doctors because of issues of linguistic competency. I wanted them to understand the parents I met in Idaho that had to drive three and four hours just to get psychiatric treatment for their children.
“I wanted the students to understand that public health is real, that service is always reciprocal,” she continued. “Just like I decided to go into education as an effort to teach, I always understood that service is always about learning from the people you really want to serve. … I’m always learning.”
Story concluded her remarks with a fitting quote from King that also served as a challenge to all in attendance: “Life’s most persistent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Story’s areas of expertise include women’s health, health program evaluations, health equity and social support. Her recent publications, research presentations and lecture topics range from improving flu vaccine rates among African Americans to the diets of older rural Black Americans with type 2 diabetes to studying food insecurity in students.
Following tradition as the 2022 Pleas Award recipient, Dr. Andrew Owusu, professor of public health in the Department of Health and Human Performance, presented the award to Story.
“I think collectively we can all agree that she is a unique individual, and she’s been a blessing to us, especially those of us in public health,” Owusu said of his colleague.
In introducing Story at the ceremony, Department of Health and Human Performance Chair Sonya Sanderson applauded Story’s “remarkable career” thus far and the ongoing positive impact she has on students.
“Students really know how much you care about them,” Sanderson said to Story. “I hear it every single day as I walk through the halls.”
Master of Ceremony Barbara Turnage, interim dean of the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences and the 2017 Pleas Award recipient, noted that the award, in addition to recognizing Black faculty members’ accomplishments in teaching, research and service, also speaks to the recipient’s embrace of mentorship, “and Chandra is an excellent mentor.”
The beginning of the ceremony featured a number of video tributes from former students and colleagues, including Chanell Haley, a post-doctoral associate at Tulane University and former student whom Story, her dissertation chair, mentored.
“Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in Dr. Story’s office,” Haley said. “Sometimes it would be to ask her questions about class. Other times it would really just be to vent about the struggles of being a doctoral student. All of those times, Dr. Story was always good to listen, and she never rushed me out of her office. … She not only cared about me as a student in her classroom, she also cared about my well-being both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Said former colleague Julie Koch, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Iowa: “She is full of curiosity and has enthusiasm for learning new things and trying something different and is open to new experiences.”
Story, who is the 2022-23 MTSU Provost’s Fellow for Faculty Development, is also a member of MTSU’s University Honors College faculty and the Women and Gender Studies Program’s faculty. In addition to thanking her college-sweetheart husband, Xaviery, for his support, Story also praised her MTSU colleagues for their backing, noting that “we never move alone.”
She also thanked and acknowledged Pleas, who was not able to attend the event, for the legacy he established to honor Black faculty.
Story’s professional memberships include the Sisters of the Academy, the American Public Health Association and the Tennessee Public Health Association, and she is a Master Certified Health Education Specialist. She also serves on the MTSU President’s Commission on the Status of Women and as board president for the Middle Tennessee Fund for Women and Girls.
Recipients of the annual John Pleas Faculty Award should have completed at least five years of service at MTSU and have a record of outstanding service. MTSU established the honor in 1997 to salute Pleas, who was the recipient of the university’s Outstanding Teaching Award in 1999.
In closing remarks, University Provost Mark Byrnes noted the impact of the previous award recipients, telling Story, “you’re in really good company.”
“The amount of good that has been done for the university and the community is truly impressive,” he said. “… I can say confidently that Chandra at this point in her career is truly extraordinary.”
You can learn more about the John Pleas Award at https://bit.ly/MTPleasFacultyAward, which includes a list of all the winners since its inception.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)
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