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NMSU Master of Public Health online program reaches across state, country

Alex Gallegos and Denise King had a desire to further their education and obtain a Master of Public Health, but neither could move to New Mexico State University's Las Cruces campus because of career and family obligations.

Woman talking to a person on a computer monitor
Sue Forster-Cox, New Mexico State University associate professor of public health, visits with one of her students participating in the Master of Public Health online distance education program via the Internet. Denise King is among 60 students who have graduated from the program that has had 101 students since it began in 2008. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Instead they chose to enroll in the online distance education program where they could balance the demands of their private lives, their work, and taking two classes each semester, including summer, and finish the course of study in three years.

"Since most communities in New Mexico are remote from the locations of institutions of higher education, providing our program through online distance education truly ties into the land-grant university mission of NMSU to serve the needs of people in the state," said Mark Kittleson, academic department head of NMSU's Department of Public Health Sciences in the College of Health and Social Services.

Gallegos, the safety officer in the Scientific Laboratory Division of the New Mexico Department of Health in Albuquerque, returned to college 20 years after earning his bachelor's degree in biology. He realized he needed to further his education for future career advancement.

"The MPH degree will help me move forward," said Gallegos, who is entering his second year of classes. "If I want to be promoted to a managerial job, I'll be competing against people with advanced degrees. A degree in public health is broad and gives me many more options. With the online program, I'm able to spend quality time with people who are very near and dear to me - my family."

After King finished her Bachelor of Community Health degree at NMSU's main campus, she began teaching health classes at NMSU-Alamogordo. Even though she earned her bachelor's degree by taking face-to-face classes at NMSU's main campus, she switched to the online program for her master's degree. The one-hour commute from Alamogordo to Las Cruces and back was doable, but not ideal.

"It was difficult to teach in Alamogordo when they wanted me to also teach in Las Cruces and commute," she said of her busy schedule while starting work on her master's degree. "I didn't want to do the whole master's program like that. Plus, my health issues required me to get a lot of infusions in Alamogordo and those appointments took a lot of time."

The online MPH program students are among the 3,669 NMSU students taking all of their degree work over the Internet. Since the MPH online program began in 2008, 101 students have participated in the program. As of the Spring 2013 commencement, 60 MPH online students have graduated, including King.

Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and research for disease and injury prevention. Overall, public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations. These populations can be as small as a local neighborhood, or as big as an entire community.

Public health professionals try to prevent problems from happening or occurring again through implementing educational programs, developing policies, administering services, regulating health systems and some health professions, and conducting research, in contrast to clinical professionals, such as doctors and nurses, who focus primarily on treating individuals after they become sick or injured.

It is also a field that is concerned with limiting health disparities and a large part of public health is the fight for health care, quality and accessibility.

"The MPH online program is for the working professional," said Sue Forster-Cox, NMSU associate professor of health science who teaches MPH courses online. "We recognize that people who are in public health and are passionate about public health are often established in their community and cannot leave to attend classes on campus."

People such as King and Gallegos, who are working in public health, or are seeking to work in public health, are gaining enhanced skills so they can change their community, and their family, for the better.

"Many of our students tell me that they are able to take information that they get from class, whether through the readings, or discussions, or other information shared by the professor, and immediately take it into their community or their worksite the very next day and share the information with their co-workers," Forster-Cox said.

Gallegos said he likes many facets of the MPH online program but what he likes most is the way its structure parallels his own career.

"One of my strengths has been the ability to see a problem, research it, fix it, and move forward," he said. "The MPH program is like that. The professors will give us problems that we will research and fix. Then we move forward. Every professor's style is a little different, but I like that, too."

The "distance" of distance education applies to geographical distance, but not to familiarity.
"For the most part, many online instructors conducted their classes in such a way that when you saw a student's name, you felt as if you knew that person face-to-face," King said.

Online discussions, which were required in five or six of the classes King took, helped build the sense of community among the students. Group projects also were part of the mix.

King also enjoyed the variety of classmates and others in the MPH program, some of whom she knew from her face-to-face classes. They hailed from various countries and had different careers. Many had been nurses, some were going on to medical school, one worked in a dental office, and one woman was a Veterans Administration liaison in El Paso.

"Through their depth and breadth of experiences, everybody added something different to the classes," she said.

The MPH online program was developed primarily for New Mexico individuals, residing across the state. Yet the interest in the program is growing.

"On a regular basis, I am contacted by people, not only in our nation, but throughout the world, interested in completing an MPH online program through NMSU," Forster-Cox said. "At this time most of our students are from New Mexico but we have a large number who are accessing the program from across the nation. We have students who are in Vermont, California and Texas."

"I'm very impressed with the quality of instruction for the MPH online program," Kittleson said. "Our program is so far ahead of the curve on effective online."

Kittleson also reports that all of the department's full-time faculty members teach online. Generally one-half of their teaching assignment is in an online format. "They take great pride in their teaching and work very hard to ensure that their teaching is effective," he said.