Columbia native and Lander University alumna April Chaffins '16 is a prime example of the power of a liberal arts education - and an aversion to being pigeonholed.
Even though she majored in English as a student, she is now a member of Emergency Support Function (ESF) 24, which is responsible for getting South Carolina businesses and industry back up and running when disaster strikes.
By just about any measure, the 2018 hurricane season was an especially deadly and expensive one for the Palmetto State. "Even though Hurricane Florence had come and gone, the flood waters from North and South Carolina were still wreaking havoc when Hurricane Michael came through," explained Chaffins, now 25.
Shortly after graduating from Lander with a degree in English, Chaffins secured a position with the S.C. Department of Commerce processing grants for businesses in the state. "While I was a student at Lander, I interned with the S.C. Department of Insurance. From then on, I knew I wanted to work in federal or state government because I wanted to help people, and I recognized the value of the strong benefits packages that come with those positions. That may be something many people do not think about at my age, but I knew that it was important for my career."
While that's heady thinking for some, overachieving is some-thing at which Chaffins excels.
During her sophomore year at Lander, she was one of only 14 students selected to take part in the University of South Carolina's Washington Semester Program, for which she interned with the Children's Defense Fund Freedom School Division in the nation's capital.
Back on campus, she served Lander as a Presidential Ambassador and a Resident Assistant; and the local community as a member of the Blue Key Honor Society, which hosts several volunteer opportunities each semester.
Academically, she was a member of the Alpha Chi Honor Society, which recognizes educational achievements.
Chaffins began her experience with the S.C. Department of Commerce as a grant administrator. While holding the position, she was appointed deputy director of ESF-24 and later promoted to program coordinator for Business and Industry Emergency Management.
"My job is essentially making sure South Carolina businesses are prepared for emergencies, and have what they need in order to get back on their feet after disaster strikes," she explained. "Of course, there are some business owners who have the mentality that 'it will never happen to me,' so much of my time is devoted to education and encouraging them to think about preparedness."
As part of her responsibilities, Chaffins is a key member of the State Emergency Response Team (SERT) that springs into action from a Columbia-based command center as soon as a potential storm or other calamity is identified. She joins representatives from the Governor's Office, the National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), various state agencies, local government representatives, and volunteer organizations.
"While no one can predict tornadoes, SERT members are notified as soon as a tropical disturbance is noticed 1,000 miles away," she explained. "For example, even though Hurricane Michael seemed to catch many people by surprise, SERT members were well aware of the storm's progress and potential well beforehand, even though we were still coordinating recovery efforts from Hurricane Florence."
While the responsibilities shouldered by Chaffins and her SERT teammates may go relatively unnoticed by the general public, their work is vital. "ESF-24's mission is to get business and industry back up and running, and people back to work as quickly as possible. Whenever businesses are impacted, the local economy in that area is impacted as well. The quicker we're able to get businesses back to standard operations, the faster normalcy is returned," she explained.
Even when storms have faded from the news cycles and the skies have cleared, Chaffins and the rest of SERT remain on as the recovery phase continues.
"We were activated for an entire month when Hurricanes Florence and Michael came roaring through," she said. "It can be a very tiring job, but the sense of purpose in helping to protect your home state is invigorating enough."
This story is featured in the Spring 2019 edition of Lander Magazine. Read more at www.lander.edu/magazine.