Alumni Profile: Erica's Story

Alumni Erica Stagg

A Military Career Dedicated to Public Health

Recent South Seattle College graduate and current University of Washington student Erica Stagg dedicated 17 years to the United States Army, serving our nation in places such as South Korea, Maryland, Louisiana, Hawaii and Washington with deployments in Iraq and Djibouti, Africa.

Originally from Louisiana, Erica initially pursued an education in pre-nursing after high school. However, for personal reasons, she made the choice to leave university behind and enlist in the army in December 2004, setting the course for her military journey.

Throughout her time in the military, Erica assumed several leadership roles that honed her interest in public health. Beginning as a preventative medicine specialist, she received both professional training in public health and took personal time to do individual research on the subject. She went on to train soldiers in sanitation, safety protocols, even gaining expertise in how to identify mosquitos and assist in researching diseases such as malaria. Erica credits the soldiers she had the privilege of leading as one of her biggest motivators throughout her career.

Her involvement on the army's COVID response team and her role in the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program (SHARP) as a program coordinator shaped her commitment to health advocacy.


A Life-Changing Diagnosis and a New Direction

Having spent much of her military career focused on the bigger picture of public health, Erica was forced to shift focus to her personal health with a surprise diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. Her diagnosis led to medical retirement, cutting her successful military career short. 

Erica knew she wanted to go back to school to continue her higher education with a focus on public health, however she felt she needed time to transition back to civilian work. 

“I initially planned on going straight to the University of Washington and applying for public health, but I ultimately decided not to,” Erica said. “I realized I needed time to decompress mentally, physically, emotionally. I needed time to transition from the military mindset and discover who Erica is.”  

She gave herself a minimum of 6 months and a maximum of 12 months for decompression focusing on healing holistically: “I know who I am as a soldier and a leader, but who am I outside of that? This time allowed me to start to discover this”.

After taking that step back, Erica started at South Seattle College in September of 2022 and, with the support of her mom, grandmother, roommates and her partner, she felt prepared to take on this new journey. She met adversities along the way, but Erica leaned on her personal support system and the one she was building during her time at South. 

“My academic advisor, Bopha (Cheng), her support, and the support of everyone around me in that time was so important to me,” Erica said. Navigating which classes to take, how to balance this new set of expectations with the transition from her old career while navigating Crohn’s disease was hard, but “Bopha was instrumental to shaping my academic career. Having her as an academic advisor – it was amazing. Academic advisors can make or break a student’s education.” 

With the help of her support system, Erica was able to start redirecting her focus on the elements of public health she loved, asking questions such as “Where can we create change?,” “How can we address and develop knowledge around public health and its impacts on food access and financial insecurity?,” and “How can we help our communities, our underserved populations?” 

“I have the experience. I want the foundational knowledge so when I’m done I am ready to go, and nothing is stopping me,” she said of her mindset. 


Obstacles and Opportunities for Growth

While at South Seattle College working towards earning her associate degree and navigating her new path in life alongside managing her chronic illness, Erica encountered a new health obstacle. 

“Earlier this year (2023) my body built up antibodies to my Crohn’s medicine and I developed really severe arthritis. I was dealing with a type of pain I had never experienced in my life – I couldn’t even walk up the two steps to my house,” Erica said. 

The pain made typical daily activities nearly impossible, hindering Erica’s ability to eat, get into her own bed, and manage the physical demands of classrooms. Erica spent months sleeping on her living room couch due to her inability to climb stairs to her room.

“My teachers at South were so supportive of me during this time,” she said. “I was taking Chemistry with Dr. Pikul – Oh my gosh, I love Dr. Pikul. I am so glad I took her class. She was so supportive. She made sure I was supported with any help I needed in the class from picking up beakers to writing. It was hard to ask for that help, but I ended up with a 4.0 (grade point average) that quarter.” 

During these times, Erica struggled with internal conflicts caused by what she called her soldier mindset and the need to maintain constant strength. “I learned during that time, it’s okay to ask for help. My soldier mindset was telling me that I was going to be fine and just to get through it. But the human side of me knew I was struggling; it was affecting me physically and emotionally. I was going from being able to do anything I needed to, to not being able to make it to my own bed upstairs or being able to eat certain foods.”

Erica’s strength and growth in navigating life post-military taught her the importance of self-care and allowing oneself the space to evolve. “I had to acknowledge that I am a human being, with emotions and feelings. Just because I was leaving the military, it didn’t mean I stopped doing amazing things or helping people; I get to do those things, just somewhere else.” 

Graduating from South Seattle College in August 2023, Erica is currently enrolled in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, majoring in Public Health with a minor in Public Policy. She aspires to advocate for better public policy surrounding public health, emphasizing community-building, and enhancing understanding of social health determinants, while advocating for accessible, holistic care focusing on mental and physical well-being through practices like yoga, meditation, and journaling.


Advice from Erica

When discussing her experiences at South Seattle College and considering her new educational journey at the University of Washington, Erica shared advice to veterans recently reintroduced to civilian work and life, those aspiring to pursue a higher education, and all current students at South.

  1.  “Lean on your support systems, lean on the people who are going to help you, and tell you what you need to hear – not what you want to hear. People who are going to keep you accountable.”
  2.  “Ask questions. You don’t know what you don’t know. And if the person you ask doesn’t know, they can probably connect you with someone who does.”
  3.  “Lean on your academic advisors. They are there to help you through your educational journey."
  4.  “Remember to take care of yourself, take time for self-care. School is wonderful, but if you aren’t in the mental space and not taking care of yourself, it’s going to be hard.”
  5.  “Challenge yourself. Take the hard classes, take the time to learn about things you want to learn, consider if what you are doing is challenging you, and if it isn’t, consider if it is the right thing for you. You need to learn and grow, and you do that through doing things that are hard. Build relationships with your instructors, join a club, do something you never thought you would. Just try.”