The two new leaders for the University of Lynchburg’s Master of Public Health bring decades of broad experience as practitioners, planners, and changemakers in high-profile settings across the globe.
That experience has driven Dr. June Sullivan ’21 DMSc and Dr. Bernard Toney ’20 DMSc to engineer a curriculum that integrates hands-on learning opportunities with the schedule of working professionals.
Sullivan, the program director, said the revamped curriculum will still incorporate the 10 core competencies of public health, and graduates are eligible to become Certified Health Education Specialists by passing the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing exam.
The biggest shift will be the MPH’s transition to a 100% online program, having started as in-person and transitioned to a hybrid model during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It really diversifies our student population and greatly expands the number of public health issues that students should be aware of,” Sullivan said. “You want to have perspectives of other geographic regions with different issues.”
Having started her career in health policy and transitioned to working as a hands-on practitioner in emergency and family medicine, Sullivan said studying public health expanded her perspective and made her a better clinician. But she emphasized that it’s not just a study for those in the medical field themselves — public health spans such a broad range of issues and roles that it’s accessible to people with a variety of backgrounds.
Sullivan drew from that broader perspective as a practitioner through community education and health promotion work, but it became a central focus after she joined the U.S. Department of State in 2014 as a medical officer.
That role deepened and diversified her experience of public health in action, working at the U.S. embassies in multiple countries, facilitating relationships, and addressing health issues in different communities. Those tours took her to Rwanda, India, Kazakhstan, Senegal, and Ethiopia, among other countries.
Perhaps the zenith of that experience was staring down the barrel of health crises posed by the Ebola virus and coronavirus outbreaks. Sullivan found herself crafting emergency medical plans and disseminating first responder training for embassy personnel, working strategically within the contexts of the communities she was stationed in.
Both Sullivan and Toney pointed to the coronavirus pandemic as pulling the importance of public health work into the spotlight. Counting both failures and monumental successes borne from the crisis, Toney, a senior advisor for the MPH program, characterizes the field this way: “If it’s working, then people don’t know about it — so it’s not a glorious thing.”
His first taste of the “great sense of purpose” that drew him to public health initiatives occurred overseas, working on medical civic action programs in southern Afghanistan for the U.S. Army. There, he noted health trends among the locals and drew a line back to a single shared water supply.
“I didn’t understand it very intellectually at that time, but that drove many health burdens,” he said. “That was the sort of impetus for me to say, ‘This is not an individual thing, but this is a population phenomenon.’”
Later in his career, having attended PA school and paid closer attention to population health operations, he worked with military medics in supporting global health initiatives among Indo-Pacific nations.
Then the scope of his work narrowed significantly — from international efforts to preserving the well-being of a handful of people — when he became a White House medical officer.
And that was right before the pandemic hit.
As understanding of this unknown new disease developed, Toney’s core duty protecting the health of the president, vice president, and first lady shifted from cautionary screenings to contingency planning and collaboration across governmental agencies.
Beyond the disease and epidemiology aspect of something like the pandemic, he said the ever-expanding understanding of social determinants of health brings so much under the public health umbrella: factors like transportation, access to grocery stores, and opportunities for exercise.
“Your zip code is more important than your genetic code, in many instances,” he points out.
Growing up in the redlined, Black side of Atlanta with low-performing schools, Toney said he has firsthand knowledge of how policies, systems, and health go hand in hand.
“That’s the reason why American cities look the way they do now, all these things that impact people’s health,” he said. “That is a unique lens to see the world through.” He added that an MPH degree formalizes and focuses that lens through academic framework.
From smoking to seatbelts, Toney said public health work is almost always a matter of delayed gratification — but the effects and lives saved can’t be understated.
“Those types of things are big things we can point to and say, ‘This is where we created a lot of change,’” he said. “You determine where you want to make that impact.”
Whether it’s governmental channels like the ones he and Sullivan have operated through, insurance companies, research institutions, nonprofits, medical facilities, or on the community level, Toney said the skills that come with the MPH can be used in myriad ways to protect people and populations.
That’s why they’ve been mindful to set up coursework that also runs the gamut, while allowing students to grow and shape a plan to address an issue they’re passionate about as they move through Lynchburg’s program — the most affordable MPH program in Virginia.
Through internships and community-based projects, students will be responding to needs that are unique to where they live.
That’s a core component of the field, according to Sullivan.
“I think that’s the benefit: we’re coming in as not an outsider, but we’re part of the community,” she said.
The MPH fall cohort at Lynchburg starts on Oct. 2.