Karen Pershing (’86, ’06)

Category: Accomplished Alumni | Awards

Karen Pershing arrived at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus on May 18 suspecting that she might have been entreated to attend the Department of Public Health’s graduation celebration to be recognized for a second time for her service as a preceptor. She was honored by the department in 2017 for her precepting work, to which she devoted significant time supervising students completing professional experiences for their Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees. Instead, her longtime colleague and friend, Kathy Brown, called her to the front to present her with an Accomplished Alumni Award from the university.

“Karen has led an impactful and meaningful career in public health, mainly focused on substance misuse prevention,” said Brown, a recently retired associate professor of practice in public health. “From her first position with the Knox County Health Department to her current role as executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition, her career has been devoted to improving the health and lives of Tennesseans. Karen has continually given her all for Tennessee, and we at the university are proud to recognize her professional achievement and significant service with an Accomplished Alumni Award.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in child and family studies in 1986, Pershing started out in social work with the Knox County Health Department, eventually running its drug and alcohol misuse prevention program in local schools. She spent some time with United Way before leading the Metro Drug Coalition (MDC), a role she’s held since 2010.

MDC has operated in the Knoxville community for over 35 years with a mission to improve the health of the greater Knoxville community by decreasing substance misuse through prevention, harm reduction, and recovery services. In her leadership capacity, Pershing has worked with local and state policymakers to improve laws to help prevent substance misuse and its fallout. She has served on a statewide planning group to develop a prevention plan for the state and led the formation of the Knox County Prescription Drug Task Force.

“Both my degrees have come together beautifully around the work I do in substance misuse,” said Pershing. “When I got my MPH at UT 20 years after my bachelor’s in child and family studies, it all clicked. The public health program was so enriching because then I understood why we do what we do—the theory behind the practice. I’m able to apply both perspectives here at MDC. I do some individual family systems work as well as looking at how we can improve community conditions in which substance misuse and family breakdown are happening.

“I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to get the education I’ve had, and I was shocked to receive this award from UT. I feel undeserving and don’t think of myself in terms of ‘accomplished,’ so I was very honored and humbled.”

Pershing has maintained her engagement with the university over the years through precepting work for the Department of Public Health and guest lectures. She is also a founding member of the SMART (Substance Misuse and Addiction Resource for Tennessee) policy network through UT’s Institute for Public Service.

To the recent graduates present when Pershing received her award, she expressed her best wishes and offered some advice.

“There’s so much you can do with your degree,” said Pershing. “There are many different occupations you could pursue and the skills you’ve learned from this program will benefit you no matter which path you choose. I hope you find what drives your passion in the field of public health, and I wish you all much success.”

There could not be a better example of passion and success to these students than Pershing. In her work to restore individuals and their families to healthy lives free from addiction, she represents the best of what it is to be a Volunteer invested and leading with courage in her community and workplace, and it’s why she ranks among UT’s Accomplished Alumni.