July 28, 2020

The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Master of Public Health (MPH) Program in Asheville awarded degrees to its first cohort this spring. The inaugural graduates, whose degree in public health leadership focused on leadership in practice, will be specially equipped to make an impact in Western North Carolina.

Amy Lanou

Dr. Amy Lanou

“The MPH in Asheville team is delighted to have supported the program’s first cohort with the guidance and support of the Gillings School’s Public Health Leadership Program,” said Amy Lanou, PhD, program codirector. “This group of intelligent, collaborative and engaged individuals demonstrated incredible resilience as we built the program with their input and weathered enormous challenges over the last two years. We are thrilled to watch them deepen or begin their work in public health in Western N.C.”

The residential program, designed with working public health professionals in mind, has a hybrid format that combines weekly in-person classes with online elements honed through the Gillings School’s MPH@UNC program. It was created to bring the benefits of the School’s MPH to the western part of the state and is hosted at UNC Asheville and the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC).

MAHEC is part of a network of federally funded programs that place highly trained health practitioners in underserved areas, and it focuses specifically on Western N.C. The Gillings School’s partnership with MAHEC and UNC Asheville connects MPH Program in Asheville students with regional health systems and local teaching expertise, arming them with context-specific knowledge so they can take a values-based approach to public health issues in the area.

“A place-based focus is at the heart of the MPH in Asheville program,” said 2020 graduate Amy Moore, MPH. “The program taught me to value the community’s voice as central to public health work. Themes of equity and social justice were present throughout, providing language and skills for understanding and addressing these key public health priorities of our time.”

Even under normal circumstances, launching a new program to serve a diverse array of students is a challenge. This program’s success was driven by administrators and students alike.

Sarah Thach

Dr. Sarah Thach

“I am so impressed by our inaugural class of MPH graduates,” said Sarah Thatch, MPH, the program’s assistant director. “It takes grit to be in the first class of anything and experience the glitches of a new program. Graduating into a pandemic takes extra tenacity! The stakes for public health leaders are the highest they’ve been in our lifetime. This cohort is up to the task of keeping Western N.C. safe and helping rebuild a more equitable society.”

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic only increased the need to adapt and innovate, and members of this cohort rose to the challenge.

“I was able to immediately apply concepts from the program to my work as an operations director at Mission Children’s Hospital in Asheville, and vice versa,” said 2020 graduate Leslie Laughrun, MPH. “This culmination of events validated my decision to pursue an MPH.”

Travis Johnson Headshot

Dr. Travis Johnson

Sadly, the pandemic was not the only trial the cohort faced. Students, staff and faculty were rocked in February when the program’s original director, Travis Johnson, MD, MPH, passed away. Johnson, who worked tirelessly to establish and guide the program, was much beloved by those who knew and worked with him and is remembered for always taking time for people of all walks of life.

“Dr. Johnson had a sense of presence and a desire to know the people around him and serve and care for them, especially the most needy,” said Scott Schindler, student manager for the program. “He had a habit of going to the darkest corners of the world and his own community and finding ways to shed light and bring justice to those places. His death has been a blow and will be one for a while.”

Johnson recruited every member of the 2020 graduating cohort, and the students report that he had a profound impact on them.

“I cannot speak about the program without mentioning the work of Travis Johnson,” said 2020 graduate Kenneth Roche, MPH. “His immeasurable character and drive to improve the world is a massive contribution to my growth in this program and as a person. His passion, dedication and faith are deeply entrenched in the life force of this program.”

In a 2018 interview with the Gillings School, Johnson indicated how much the vision of this program meant to him.

“My dream teaching goal would be to partner with local agencies to give students the opportunity to solve cases based on real-life issues in real time,” he said. “This approach would allow students to further hone their skills through creative and critical thinking while also working on current public health issues in the field. I firmly believe that the best and most innovative teaching takes place outside of the classroom.”

Johnson’s concern with bringing diversity, innovation and value to public health are principles that endure in both the program and his students. The 2020 graduates will be the first of many to carry this vision out into Western North Carolina and the world.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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