Afton Nourzad remembers the day she began to formulate ideas about her future. “Single-handedly, Mrs. Adams was the one who got me started down this track. I'll never forget her coming into Mr. Richardson's class and talking about her epidemiology class. She told us if we wanted to be in that class, we had to apply for it. I remember thinking that was super cool and I really wanted to apply.
‘It was a small class - maybe there were four or five of us. It was such a quality class and I just really loved the material.”
Afton came to Walker, from Mt. Bethel, in 9th grade and remembers that it seemed ‘so big.’ Zoned for Wheeler magnet, Afton credits her parents for making the best choice with Walker. “High school was tough. It is for everyone. I know I made some… questionable choices,” she laughs, “but the people around me were amazing. I'm really, really grateful for the Walker community.”
That community included teachers and coaches. Afton, who became involved with Walker Athletics also credits English teacher and track coach Matt Eisenman with really helping her create her path. Once her interest in epidemiology was piqued, she began to pursue colleges with strong science programs. “I remember my teachers literally sitting beside me while I sorted out my options, while I wrote and rewrote essays.”
Following her graduation from Walker, Afton headed to Gainesville and The University of Florida. Obtaining both her Bachelor of Science and her Masters in Public Health - with a concentration in Epidemiology - Afton had no idea that her commencement would coincide with the outbreak of COVID-19. As she was finishing her intern at the Southeastern National Tuberculosis Center, Afton remembers hearing early chatter about COVID-19 but noted that “no one seemed very concerned.” Then, “in March, everything changed.
“The Dean of Public Health reached out to all second-year students to update us on how Florida was responding to the outbreak.” As was the case in Washington and New York, the state of Florida clearly did not have enough people prepared to “work the numbers.” Understanding that the timing presented an incredibly unique opportunity, Afton knew she needed to step up. When the call came for any graduating Master’s students willing to be sent to the areas of highest need, Afton didn’t hesitate. “They called me at 3 p.m. on Saturday and deployed me to Broward County the following morning. I was supposed to be here two weeks but, now, it’s been six.”
Her job is contact tracing. “We monitor infected people after they've tested positive. Then, we search for the folks who have been in contact with the patient. It's kind of like this enormous web that grows and grows.
‘I always thought of myself as very black/white. And that is helpful now. I have to separate myself from the emotion of it. We're reaching out to people who have come into close contact with a COVID patient. Sometimes we are dealing with people who have lost loved ones and family members who are devastated. Our priority is to remain professional, keep it scientific, and do everything you can to keep looking for those who need to be safe. I think that's why the stints are only for 2 weeks - because it can get difficult if you think about what's really going on.”
Under any other circumstance, Afton would be walking with her fellow graduates this weekend. And although a graduation ceremony “feels a bit anti-climactic now”, she knows that she is doing tremendous work in Broward County and has already been offered a full-time opportunity to continue working for the State of Florida. “I’m going to continue working with docs and nurses to monitor the numbers and ensure compliance with the rules and policies on COVID treatment. I think I’ll be here for a while.”
Still, when she returns to Georgia, she hopes to be able to visit campus and thank her former faculty in person. “I know when I left Walker I thought I would never return. I look back now and I'm just so happy and so thankful that I was able to meet all those incredible educators and grow up in that environment. It's made me who I am today.”