Learning from a Distance

The Career MPH program brings working professionals together via online classroom

By Kerry Ludlam


Slideshow key

1. Melissa Alperin and other instructors teach distance-learning students in class at the beginning and end of each semester. In between classes, students converse and complete their coursework online.

2. Kendolyn Smith, a pharmacy consultant and public health educator in Atlanta, is the first graduate of the CMPH program.

3. CMPH graduate Dave Westfall teaches health care management to current students. He also serves as a district health director with the Georgia Department of Health. 

4.Lydia Hoffhines inspects a restaurant in northeast Georgia, the territory she covers as a state environmental health specialist. 

By day, they are state and county health directors, policy advisers, food inspectors, IT experts, veterinarians, nurses, and physicians, among many others. By night, on weekends, and even during lunch breaks, they are students in the Career Master of Public Health (CMPH) program, one of a few of its kind in the country.

Marking 15 years of distance learning and some 250 alumni at Rollins this year, the CMPH program attracts public health professionals from all over the country, as well as Canada, Africa, and Europe. In fall 2011, 65 new students enrolled—a record number. CMPH students earn the same MPH degree as traditional students but in an online format, allowing them to maintain their work schedules while applying what they learn on the job.

The program grew from the smaller Graduate Certificate Program at Emory (GCPE), developed by cdc to further train public health professionals. The intent all along was for the GCPE to become a full degree program. Students in the GCPE, along with students from graduate certificate programs at other schools, had the option of continuing on for a full degree.

“From the beginning, we had commitment to continue the program,” says CMPH chair Melissa Alperin 91MPH, among the first GCPE instructors. “While the program originally was intended for cdc employees, we quickly began to see a need beyond that.”

Under the leadership of Kathy Miner, now associate dean for applied public health, the first cohort of GCPE students enrolled in 1997. Two years later, the CMPH program welcomed its first students, including Kendolyn Smith 01CMPH, an Atlanta pharmacist.

A new concept

Smith spent the early part of her career in pharmaceutical sales and training at AstraZeneca. She climbed the corporate ladder at a furious pace but wanted to continue her education.

“I knew that in order to advance professionally, I needed to continue with a graduate degree, but I wanted to continue working while I did it,” says Smith. “Professionals want to work hard contributing to their professions but also find balance when it comes to pursing quality education to enhance their skills. The cmph program made that possible for me.”

In 1999, distance learning was still a new concept to many institutions.

“When I joined the program, I re-member feeling that it was amazing to be part of this first group,” says Smith, who now has a doctorate of pharmacy and works in Atlanta as a consultant pharmacist and public health educator. “The CMPH program is a trailblazer for distance learning programs. It really led the way in developing a curriculum to educate working professionals. Emory set the stage for people to value distance learning.”

CMPH students meet at Rollins twice each semester, at the beginning and end of the term, on weekends. Outside of the classroom, students receive most of their instruction online. Students primarily use Blackboard to turn in assignments, view lectures, discuss coursework, and connect with faculty and classmates. Such online tools make it possible for students like Shella Farooki, a teleradiologist in Dublin, Ohio, to earn an MPH from Emory.

“I became interested in Rollins because it was the most career- and distance-friendly program, and the school was ranked No. 6 in the nation,” says Farooki. “Reputation is key for me since I am using this opportunity to make a new career pathway for myself and bridge public health with radiology and clinical medicine.”

While the CMPH program format is far different from how Farooki earned her undergraduate and medical degrees, she has adjusted well to distance learning.

“I love the face-to-face time on campus the best, but when we need to connect as a team for a group project, we have conference calls and communicate by group Wiki,” says Farooki. “Some classes require discussion board postings, so we do that as well. Often, we have more relevant and succinct discussions online than we would in a classroom setting.”

Choosing a path

While many universities offer a certificate program in public health or a generalist mph degree program, Rollins’ CMPH program offers different concentrations of study. Through the years, the concentrations have changed based on funding and interest. Currently, students can choose from three tracks: applied epidemiology, prevention science, and applied public health informatics, new this year.

“Public health informatics is an emerging field, and everyone needs to be more knowledgeable in this area,” says Alperin of the new concentration. “We received funding in 2009 from the Public Health Informatics Institute at the Task Force for Global Health to create the curriculum. We pulled together informaticians from all over the country—from academia and practice at the federal, state, and district levels—to help us create a curriculum structure that could be used in a number of ways.”

Though Farooki began in the prevention science track, she switched to applied public health informatics, which is a better fit given her background in diagnostic radiology, a field constantly transformed by technological advances.

“Informatics is more pertinent to my specialty and allows me the opportunity to seek some innovative positions in the future,” says Farooki. “This is not a technical track where you sit down and write code for hours. The instructors stress that informaticians are the bridge between public health and informatics, so we need to take our clinical experience and figure out which informatics solutions, if any, are applicable to the problem at hand.”

Because the CMPH program is aimed at professionals with at least three to five years of experience, most students have existing career and family demands.

“I had to get organized and stay organized,” recalls Smith, who at the time managed six direct reports at AstraZenca. “I was online and connected all the time. But I was so interested in the program and what I was learning that I did what was necessary to meet the requirements of the courses.”

Farooki also found a way to maintain her coursework. “I do a lot of my studying after 9 at night,” she says. “During the day, I take my two daughters to and from school, and I work from my home. Sometimes I have to study on weekends, depending on what assignments are due. Staying on top of due dates and being organized are key.”

Immediate rewards

As with any education program, the intent is for students to use what they learn. CMPH students don’t have to wait for graduation day to use their newfound knowledge.

“We want students to use what they’re learning immediately,” says Alperin. “For example, in the spring, I teach a questionnaire design and data analysis class. One week we’re learning about questionnaire development, and the next week students are telling me that they’re developing a questionnaire for work. They’re able to immediately apply their skills, and that’s just one example.”

Lydia Hoffhines, who entered the CMPH program last fall, has seen immediate benefits in her work as a state environmental health specialist for northeast Georgia. In her informatics class, she learned how to build better systems through databases, which is helping her recognize and address deficiencies in collecting and reporting data in her job. And she has developed a new appreciation for analytic reasoning and quantitative methods used in biostatistics and epidemiology.

“It’s beneficial to understand these concepts in case of a foodborne illness outbreak,” says Hoffhines, the recipient of the David J. Sencer MD mph Scholarship, which targets local and state public health professionals in the workforce.

Thus far, the CMPH program has exceeded her expectations in building her professional self-esteem. “I am much more confident in who I am in relation to my career,” she says. “I can already tell that the CMPH program is setting the foundation to grow my leadership skills.”

As Alperin counts off all of the graduates who have gone on to serve as state or district health officers, emergency preparedness coordinators, ministers of health, and policy makers, she notes proudly, “Our alumni not only strengthen their careers but also the practice of public health.”

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