MPH student’s public health expertise shapes graduate student experiences in LGBTQ Center

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

Lauren Murfree headshot

Lauren Murfree(Photo by Paul Price)

Graduate student Lauren Murfree has a love of community building, advocacy and research. So, when she was presented with the opportunity to pair her anthropology master’s degree with a Master of Public Health degree from Purdue University’s Department of Public Health, she took it. Murfree further tied her passions together with a PhD in science communication from the College of Agriculture in efforts to help communities through horizontal engagement, or engaging on an equal level with community members.

“I really loved research, and I loved public health, and so it just seemed natural to tie both,” Murfree said.

Murfree’s passion for public health was solidified during her coursework in spring 2020 with Professor Emerita Sandra Liu. Assignments and projects allowed her to make a direct impact in communities during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a local needs assessment, resource mapping, personal protective equipment distribution and COVID-19 case projections.

“This is what public health should be,” Murfree said. “You should be responsive to situations and be willing to reevaluate things as needed. I really valued that class, and I really loved Dr. Liu as an instructor because she highlighted what is the best of public health, in my opinion.”

When the idea of working in Purdue’s LGBTQ Center was presented to her, Murfree saw it as a great opportunity to diversify her resume while also giving back to the LGTBQ community. LGBTQ Center director Lowell Kane noted Murfree’s unique skill set, particularly in public health areas, made her a strong candidate to work in the cultural center. Kane noted skills like Murfree’s are common in the College of Health and Human Sciences.

“This college has a built-in understanding, and so for us, there are a plethora of benefits to having this established and deep relationship,” Kane said. “Working with (HHS) students has been a great joy because we see that they find their passion here, and when you’re passionate about the work, you want to make a meaningful impact.”

During her three years as a graduate assistant, Murfree has taken the LGBTQ Center’s graduate student engagement to an entirely new level — an area the center was just beginning to work on when Lauren joined in August 2020.

Initially, Murfree’s goal was to get more graduate students to feel comfortable coming to the center — building a welcoming and safe space for this unique group of students.

“A lot of what I did in the first year was trying to build community where they could feel like they’re together and can be themselves and then try to get them to gradually feel like it’s safe to come in,” Murfree said.

From there, Murfree performed a needs assessment, where she explored the desires, challenges and experiences of LGBTQ graduate students at Purdue. One of the outcomes from her needs assessment was an LGBTQ graduate student-specific therapy group in collaboration with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to offer additional support.

In addition to the therapy group, one of Murfree’s legacies within the LGBTQ Center is the creation of Purdue’s first university-recognized Queer Graduate Student Association.

“I want grad students to feel like they have their own autonomy in the community, that they can do this on their own — they don’t need me,” Murfree said. “A lot of the last year has been building up confidence with grad students and sharing those community-building skills.”

Murfree is currently working on her practicum and culminating project for her Master of Public Health degree, while also tying up loose ends in the center. For her practicum, she is working on sustainable community-building by holding discursive forums where graduate students in the LGBTQ Center can explore what’s been done and what’s still needed to continue to improve relations between the center and graduate students. She will also be conducting message testing for outreach materials to help facilitate awareness of the LGBTQ graduate student CAPS group.

Ultimately, Murfree is proud of the strides she’s made during her time in the center. As she looks forward to a job in governmental advocacy and affairs, not-for-profit work or the research industry, she feels confident in the community she’s leaving behind.

“I’m really happy to leave knowing they have their little set community, even outside the center, that’s their own organization (Queer Graduate Student Association) where they can do their own stuff and get funding through Purdue and collaborate with people,” Murfree said. “I’ve seen the personal growth of grad students here.”

For Kane, Murfree’s influence is something that will continue to be felt in the LGBTQ Center for years to come.

“She has been the catalyst,” Kane said. “Lauren has modeled and established an innovative way of engagement for graduate students through cultural center spaces. Lauren has really mastered engagement on that level, and we now have a model that we can work from that is strong and successful.”