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Alum Update: Global Disaster Resilience Leadership

By acknowledging that strengths exist alongside vulnerabilities, resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from challenges. Enhancing resilience through services and support can help individuals, communities, organizations, and governments prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural and human-made disasters. One Tulane University School of Social Work graduate is using his expertise in resilience to mitigate risk worldwide for a Fortune 100 company.

With a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from a liberal arts college in South Carolina, Will Gaston had always considered himself a generalist. “I was drawn to disaster resilience after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal,” he says. “I had been there four months before and wanted to understand how I could help that area without being a hindrance.”

Will chose Tulane because its Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy (DRLA) curriculum was flexible. “It had core competencies that covered the principles of disaster management in the international and domestic context which allowed me to pursue career opportunities in both humanitarian aid and domestic emergency management,” he says. 

The reputation of Tulane as a leader in disaster management and recovery was also a factor in Will’s decision. “The school has a history of learning from disasters and sharing that experience and research with others,” he says.

While at Tulane, Will was a Fellow with the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, participating in Emergency Operations Center activations for a political protest, an electrical fire/outage, and 2017 NFL Draft, and was a Research Intern with the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, studying the National Flood Insurance Program to better understand mitigation techniques and funding options. He received his Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership in 2018.

Now, Will works as the Global Hazard Mitigation Manager for Nike. He ensures that buildings are designed and maintained in accordance with resiliency standards so that operations can manage, respond to, and recover from disasters, including flooding, fires, earthquakes. “I oversee our relationship with external engineering firms that conduct design reviews and Hazard Vulnerability Assessments resulting in mitigation recommendations that enforce the standards so that we can systematically reduce the impact of disasters to Nike’s employees, assets, and operations,” he says.

Over the last three months, however, 90% of Will’s work has been related to addressing the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve been serving on various task forces with a wide range of missions like obtaining COVID-19 related supplies, developing global confirmed case protocols, and creating Nike’s global return to work plan,” he says. “It has been challenging to develop standards and guidelines that work in hundreds of jurisdictions and cultures across the globe.” 

Will has continued his work of evaluating facilities, but during the pandemic, he has spent much of his time capturing information on and assessing storage possibilities for an overstock of apparel and shoes that can’t be delivered to stores due to COVID-19 closures. 

Mitigation is his favorite area. Identifying and reducing the impact of hazard events is helpful to a business and its bottom line. “I like to help organizations discover the best ways to spend their money,” he says. “Being proactive and spending it on protective and resilience measures on the frontend saves money and lives on the backend.”

For those interested in a career in disaster resilience, Will says to keep trying and to remember to network. “One connection can get you into a place you’d never thought you’d be,” he says.

He also recommends taking calculated risks. During an eight-month fellowship post graduation, he networked. As he met people who he thought could get him a full-time position, he would give them business cards he made himself. They had a smiling dog meme with the caption “I need a job” on one side and his contact information on the other. It made him memorable and said something about his personality. That helped him make the connection that got him the interview with Nike. “You have one opportunity to make an impression,” Will says. “That one impression can create an opportunity.”

As with all careers, self-care should be important. In fact, self-care is a way to build resilience in individuals. Will makes time for it to ensure he’s better prepared to address Nike’s resiliency needs, even if that means taking small breaks from it. “Over the past two to three months, I’ve made an effort to disconnect when I need to and not look at my email,” he says. “I typically do this by getting outside to go running or hiking.”