The Pivot highlights three mentors in the Department of Health Policy and Management.

Drs. Melanie Studer (fourth from left), Morris Weinberger (fifth from left) and Karl Umble (far right) smile with students in Armfield Atrium.

Health policy and management students look to Drs. Melanie Studer, Karl Umble and Morris Weinberger for mentoring.

Number 1

What’s your role in public health?

Melanie: I’m the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Health Policy and Management (HPM), where I mentor students and teach courses on the United States health care system.

Karl: I’m a faculty mentor for HPM undergrads, especially as they work on their senior honors thesis and capstone project. I also support program evaluation, workforce development and pedagogical training for our doctoral programs, and serve on Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) dissertation committees.

Morris: I’m a former chair of HPM, now serving as a professor emeritus in the department. I continue to mentor, and I teach a 1-credit leadership course for undergrads. I’m still mentoring because it excites me when students say our efforts help shrink a big campus down for them, or that our department feels like a family.


Number 2

How did you become involved with mentoring?

Melanie: I give all credit for my role to former department chair Peggy Leatt. In 2008, I was on maternity leave when she called and asked if I’d be interested in teaching in the Bachelor of Science in Public Health program.

Karl spends time with a BSPH capstone team.

Karl spends time with a BSPH capstone team.

Karl: Peggy Leatt also got me on board! In 2011, she asked if I would teach two courses for the department.

Morris: Our department has always had a culture of being student-centered, and that shows up in all sorts of ways. For me, mentoring took a central role in my career when I became director of our Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program in 2003. I then became a core faculty member of our Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH) program around 10 years ago.


Number 3

What does mentoring mean to you?

Karl: Mentoring means being available to students and listening to their interests in public health and how they were formed. If I had to sum it up in four words, I would use “guiding” (perhaps to an internship), “advocating” (writing letters and helping them connect with others), “coaching” (for example, developing their professional communication skills), and “encouraging.”

I think the most important thing I try to offer is encouragement and inspiration. If I can connect the dots of how the skills a student has demonstrated in an honors thesis might translate to a future career as a researcher, they may discover a whole new life path.

Karl, Melanie and Morris share a meal with HPM students.

Karl, Melanie and Morris share a meal with HPM students.

Melanie: I think mentoring happens when you build a relationship with a student and come to want the very best for them — even if that means moving them out of the health policy and management department. They aren’t just students; they are people with longer-term goals and dreams, and your job is to help them orient their life toward those outcomes.

A common occurrence for me is helping someone update their resume. Students often don’t realize how much they’ve already accomplished, and I have the easy job of just helping them tell their story in a compelling way. I also connect them with alumni and other students who can help them explore their interests.

Morris: A former student one told me, “You’re the first adviser I’ve ever spoken with whose first question wasn’t, ‘What’s your student ID number?’” Students often meet me and think ours will be a one-way relationship where I help them, but I get a lot of joy in return from sustaining those relationships and knowing where people end up in 10 years, or 20.

I tell them, “I don’t ever want you to think I’m too busy to meet with you. I know what it takes to mentor students, so talk to me and let me do my job! And, by the way, this relationship doesn’t end when you graduate — let me know how you get on.”


Number 4

Have you mentored a student through a career or educational pivot?

Morris: I remember a former student who wanted to be a physician but was struggling academically. Nowadays, he’s highly successful in public health. Recognizing that public health may provide a more fulfilling career path than medicine is a fairly common story. Some students worry that their parents will be disappointed if they don’t become a doctor, but it’s our responsibility and privilege to help students launch a career that is meaningful to them and enables them to make a positive difference in the world.

Melanie: So many students come to UNC who are really smart and have a strong service orientation. They walk onto campus as biology majors on the pre-med track, but their world opens up around their junior year. They see all the other ways they might impact the health of larger populations of people — often after attending a career panel on consulting where, for example, they learn they can support the work of the state health department to address the social determinants of health. They frequently pivot to health policy after that, so I say simple exposure to a broader range of career possibilities makes all the difference.

Karl: I probably have, but more often I help them follow their hearts into career paths they were already interested in. I really enjoy helping students find a good internship, research project or job that helps them develop toward their goals.


Number 5

Who are you when you’re at home?

Morris shows off some of the swag he was given during his years with the department.

Morris shows off some of the swag he was given during his years with the department.

Morris: I’m currently training for a marathon! I ran my last one in 1996. With retirement, my wife and I will visit our kids and grandkids, we’ll and travel more (including a trip to Portugal and Spain next fall and touring United States national parks). Another thing I want to do in retirement is take vacations with one grandkid at a time, so I can intentionally deepen my relationship with each of them.

Melanie: I’m a mom to a first-year high school student who plays multiple instruments and is in the marching band. That means I’m regularly at competitions and performances, volunteering with an amazing community. I’m also a daughter to an aging parent who needs more support, which makes me even more grateful for my community.

Karl:  I love to read and enjoy having coffee and conversation with friends. I also like concerts, listening to music and playing the clarinet. I enjoy sharing in the life and learning activities at my church.

I also want to say that working with Morris and Melanie has been fantastic. As wonderful leaders, they serve others and live out care. They create unusually deep cultures of learning and support and have been great mentors for me along the way. I’m really grateful for them — and for all our wonderful colleagues and students.

Read more interviews in The Pivot series.

Published: May 14, 2024

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