When she arrived at Eastern Kentucky University, Candi Graves dreamed of becoming a dentist in her home town of Burkesville.
Her passion has always been to help people, but one trip to Haiti resulted in more than a just a change of majors – from biology pre-dental to environmental health science. It and two subsequent trips to the Caribbean nation changed her life in every imaginable way.
"After being there for only a week in the summer of 2013, I realized I wanted to help the people as soon as I could," Graves recalled. "I knew I didn't want to wait six years to be a licensed dentist to help people out. I came back that fall and after telling my adviser my interest, she pointed me to our Environmental Health Science program. It was the best decision I made while atEKU (because) with EHS I can do anything dealing with food, water and sanitation. Haiti can use some help in all three of those areas. I'm excited to use my degree to help them even more."
In addition to her short trip in 2013, Graves returned to Haiti for an eight-week internship last summer and another four weeks during the 2014-15 winter break. While in western Haiti last summer, Graves was able to quantitatively assess drinking water quality to determine the density of fecal indicator bacteria in the water, specifically E. coli. After extensive study, she was able to identify deficiencies in a mission-based water quality treatment system that led to positive changes.
"I learned the methods for all those tests in my water class," Graves said. "Also, with all of the EHS classes I had already taken, all of the professors discussed real-life, on-the-job situations that they had dealt with in their careers. With the experience they shared with us and with the help of (faculty member) Dr. Jason Marion, I was able to deal with the not-so-ideal situation that was going on with the water purification system. They had taught me how to deal with situations in a professional manner, and I really think that made a difference when it came down to solving the problem."
Even more amazing than her data collection effort, Marion said, Graves "was able to leverage her results by partnering with researchers from Clemson University in Haiti and help her village secure a new UV-based disinfection system from Clemson that has now been installed and evaluated, resulting in E. coli-free water, fit for human consumption. Candi was able to beautifully navigate the politics and pride associated with the personalities who installed the failing system, demonstrating her ability to solve problems with judgment and professionalism unparalleled for an undergraduate student."
Graves came away from the summer internship not only with a deep inner satisfaction in what she was able to accomplish, but with a newfound passion for clean water for all peoples and a new perspective on life and humanity.
"I really was able to understand the world as a whole by being there," she said. "Before, in my own little world, I felt like everyone lived like they do in the U.S. When I was in Haiti, I was living in the poorest country in the western hemisphere but, to be honest, that didn't really phase me. The Haitian people have a joy to them that I can't quite explain. The simple things bring laughter to a room full of kids. Haitians are quick to show compassion and love to the ones who are helping them. They embraced what I was doing because they knew I wanted to help them."
Graves recalled nights with no power and no water, as well as vehicle breakdowns on the highway. She even experienced a brief bout of chikungunya fever. "But all those things didn't matter because the joy I had being able to help the people outweighed any rough living situation."
Now she can't wait to get back.
"I will be going back to Haiti for the rest of my life," she said. "The relationships I made with the people in Haiti are the type where you can't go very long apart. I actually get to sponsor a little boy through the mission where I stay. I want to be able to help the people and the mission in any way I can and, with my degree, I continue to learn ways to do that."
Graves' passion for helping others is no less evident back home on the Richmond campus, where she has enthusiastically served as a Colonel Captain (now known as Admission Recruitment Ambassador) and as a Student Alumni Ambassador. In the former, she has given campus tours to small and large groups. With the latter, Graves has met countless alumni "who still love the University as much as they did while they were here years ago. They have inspired me to do as much as I can for the University while I am here and once I am gone."
This summer, Graves, who has maintained a 3.6 GPA in a rigorous academic program, will switch directions and head to the upper Midwest. Having received a prestigious U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) CO-STEP internship, she will be providing environmental health services to Native Americans on four reservations in Wisconsin.
She would like to gain a permanent position with the USPHS. "I would also like to work with organizations that try to provide clean water in areas where it is not easy. I want all the organizations that say they are providing clean water to actually provide clean water, so I am currently researching how I can do that."