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First Place Finish

April 24, 2017 -- What do Maria Jose Rosado Cupul, Shannon Bass and Erin Gomez have in common? On the surface, not a whole lot. All three are health promotion students who will graduate this spring, but all three of them took a different path to UNI.

Maria is an international student from Mexico who first heard about UNI at a college fair at one of the public universities in her hometown and was offered a scholarship.

Shannon, a wife and mother with an eight-year-old son and eleven-year-old daughter at home, returned to UNI after a layoff, a decision she described as both exciting and nerve-wracking.

Erin is a daughter from a single-parent family who has spent countless hours working in the produce department at Hy-Vee to be able to afford her college education.

The three of them were selected last fall by Tom Davis, professor of health promotion, to compete as a team in the National Health Education Case Study Competition in March.

UNI is no stranger to this particular competition. UNI has qualified for the competition in 11 of the last 12 years, and placed first in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2013 and now 2017. No other participating university has won the competition more than once.

Shannon Bass and Erin Gomez

At first, none of the three students seemed as confident as Davis about their chances.

“I think that one thing that we questioned ourselves about at the beginning when we [were] first [selected] was, ‘Why did he pick me?’ I’m not that good. We’re not that good,” said Maria. “What did he see that we couldn’t see in ourselves?”

They eventually learned not to doubt Davis -- or themselves, really -- when they tied for first place in the competition with Brigham Young University.

The competition was held in Denver, Colorado, during the Society of Public Health Educators (SOPHE) Conference. Two weeks prior to the competition, the team received an actual national public health problem to solve. They spent those two weeks -- with much of their work being conducted through Skype and FaceTime -- developing their plan, with no assistance whatsoever from faculty, staff, students or alumni, as per the competition rules.

At the competition, the team was not allowed to use any technology, props or other types of presentation materials. Through two rounds of competition against eleven other universities, the three of them were expected to outline their plan orally to a panel of judges and  field questions.

When it was announced they had tied for first place, all three were overcome with emotion.

“It was overwhelming,” Erin said. “We worked every day for the two weeks we had the case. It was very gratifying to be acknowledged for the hard work we put into it.”

But the first place finish did more than just validate their hard work together. It helped them realize why Davis chose them to represent UNI in the competition in the first place.

“I think he did look at the fact that we have very different backgrounds, and that we’re all motivated. I think it was a good choice. I mean, we all work together so well,” said Shannon. “We all had things to bring [to the team] in different ways.”

“The whole time, Dr. Davis was like, ‘You are going to crush it. You’re going to win,’” said Maria.

And they most certainly did.