A Mercer student is getting firsthand experience in her field of study as an American Red Cross volunteer deployed to Central Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
Samantha Cannon, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in homeland security and emergency management through the College of Professional Advancement, is currently serving as a Red Cross representative in the Orange County emergency operations center. She has been fielding requests for assistance and helping connect the county with needed support and services.
Cannon, who is originally from Decatur but moved to Orlando, Florida, a year ago, said she always knew she wanted a career that involved helping others, but it took some searching for her to find a degree that spoke to her. After studying marine biology and then psychology, she transferred to Mercer upon learning about the program in homeland security and emergency management. She also was inspired by stories she heard growing up about emergency response work that her father and uncle had done.
The College of Professional Advancement has offered this Bachelor of Science program since 2016. As a completely online program, students enroll from across the United States and sometimes other countries, and enrollment ranges from 20-30 students per semester, said Dr. Lynn Tankersley, COPA professor of criminal justice and program coordinator for the criminal justice leadership and homeland security and emergency management programs.
The students are training for emergency management or emergency operations jobs with companies, government organizations and nonprofits, and some are already in the field and pursuing the degree for advancement purposes.
“They typically work in leadership positions with a variety of companies around the notion of emergency response and emergency management,” Dr. Tankersley said. “It’s a really diverse field. The number of jobs is not vast, but the type of company and the type of work that they do is quite broad in scope.”
Students in the program who don’t already have at least two years of professional experience are required to complete an 120-hour internship, and several students have worked with the American Red Cross.
Cannon had already been involved with the Red Cross as a volunteer and secured an internship with the Greater Orlando chapter. Over the summer, she did “blue skies” work, helping with daily operations and emergency plans during a period where natural disasters weren’t occurring in her area. She established agreements with community partners for sheltering civilians during disasters like multi-home fires and tornados.
After her internship ended, she stayed on as a volunteer. Since Sept. 27, she’s been doing “gray skies” work for the Central Florida region following the damage inflicted by Hurricane Ian.
“I got cozy on a cot and rode out the storm here with the emergency operations center that’s activated at the moment,” she said. “I’ve been working to do everything that I can to help here.”
Central Florida experienced winds as high as 96 mph from the hurricane and as much as 20 inches of rain in some areas, resulting in unprecedented flooding. Days later, flood waters continue to rise, according to local news reports.
Stationed about 20 minutes from her home, Cannon is the person who “connects the dots” between requests for assistance and the provision of support and services.
“It’s invaluable experience for me personally and professionally as a student. I’m probably one of the youngest people in the EOC (emergency operations center) at this time, so I feel extremely blessed that the Red Cross has put its trust in me. It’s hard work. I’m honored more than anything and grateful,” said Cannon, who is 23.
“The people they have working here (at the Orange County EOC) are amazing, compassionate and caring. It’s been amazing to connect with them and learn from them by observation and collaboration. I know that putting this experience from Hurricane Ian on my resume will help show that I do have what it takes to handle it.”
Cannon had the whole summer to train during her internship, and she’s now having the unique opportunity to put her skills and knowledge to use during a real natural disaster.
“She was really eager to get involved. She’s the kind of person that goes 100 percent into everything she does. For her to have those opportunities, she’s very well qualified to respond,” Dr. Tankersley said. “The hands-on real-world knowledge that she’s gaining from being in the actual flooded area, we can simulate all that all we want in the classroom, but she’s going to have so much more knowledge from the situations that come up that you can’t plan for.”
Now in her second year of the Mercer bachelor’s degree program, Cannon is expected to graduate in May 2023. She hopes to do work similar to what she’s doing with the Red Cross in the future but is keeping her options open.
“I’m kind of figuring out now where my skills will best be put to use. At this time, I’m feeling like a blank canvas, but I’m also on the hunt,” she said.