“You should be proud of your accomplishments!” Dr. Kay Perrin told the College of Public Health baccalaureate graduates at the pinning ceremony May 1. “As of tomorrow, you will be among the 26% of the U.S. population with a college degree,” added Perrin, associate professor and assistant dean for undergraduate studies.
Among all the honors, accolades and distinctions as the college recognized its spring 2015 graduates in the Sam Bell III Auditorium, a trio of atypical grads were especially noteworthy.
“My college experience is definitely different than that of the average student in the COPH, given that I am a ‘baby boomer,’ and considerably older than my fellow students,” said Geraldine “Gerry” Piper. “My upcoming graduation and receiving my bachelor’s degree in public health has been a 39-year journey in the making!”
That journey began when Piper, now 57, started working in the 1970s as a registered medical assistant in family medicine, Ob/GYN and dermatology.
Her career expanded into research in 2000, when she was hired as a research assistant at the University of Kentucky, working in cognitive brain imaging studies. Later, she was recruited by the Markey Cancer Center to assist in establishing a statewide network for lung cancer clinical trials. She also took classes part-time and completed her associate’s degree in 2005.
In 2008, Piper at arrived at USF as a clinical research coordinator for the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center. Recognizing the opportunity her workplace offered, she started exploring majors that might complement her experience and career goals.
“That’s when I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kay Perrin,” Piper said. “She explained that the COPH was in the process of establishing a bachelor’s degree program. After our discussion, I felt a bachelor’s in public health would be a very good fit for me, and thus started taking some classes again part-time.”
She had barely settled into her new pursuit when life threw her a horrible curve, “the most devastating detour I had ever encountered,” she said.
In 2010, her husband was diagnosed with ALS, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a fatal and incurable neuromuscular ailment that few survive for two years.
“Though we had faced many trials throughout our 36 years doing life together, this would be an indescribable, overwhelming final blow to face as a family. When it became obvious that the disease was quickly progressing, and my husband was shrinking away before our eyes, I made the tough decision to quit school and my job to be at home to take care of him.”
A scant nine months later, he was gone.
It was the fall of 2013 when Piper resumed her studies at COPH. Last Friday, she finally walked across the stage to receive her diploma. It was a mother-daughter joint celebration, as Nicole AnnLee Piper graduated, too, receiving her master’s degree in rehabilitation/mental health counseling and a certificate in marriage and family therapy.
Besides Perrin, associate professor and assistant dean for undergraduate studies, who Piper said was “very supportive throughout my program,” she also said she “can’t say enough good things about my Public Health academic advisor, Annette Strzelecki. She was extremely instrumental and helpful assisting me with the scheduling of my classes so that I would be able to complete all my requirements and graduate at the same time as my daughter.”
Piper said six weeks of study abroad program in Spain last summer was a major highlight of her time at COPH.
“What a phenomenal, life-changing experience!” she said. “It was a great opportunity to learn the language, culture and history of Spain. I also found it to be a great way to connect with over 150 other college students from USF and other universities, as well.”
As for what her future endeavors hold, Piper is all about public health’s core mission.
“Public Health at the most basic level is about promoting healthy lifestyles across the lifespan, of which I have been a firm believer for a long time. Currently, my passions lie in health education, as well as establishment and implementation of programs promoting healthy workplaces,” she said. “Workplace stress is at epidemic proportion these days and shortening the lives of way too many. I would like very much to be a part of finding better solutions, allowing for a healthier balance in people’s lives. Life is way too short to not make it a priority!”
“I love public health because I am able to interact with the public,” said Amanda DeRenzis. At 19, she is COPH’s youngest graduate and is already working as a research coordinator at Moffitt Cancer Center.
“I make every effort to meet my patients face-to-face for all of their follow-ups,” she said. “This is important because I am able to interact with them about their cancer diagnoses, but also on a personal level. It is amazing the impact it can have on someone. I believe this is the most important aspect of public health.”
DeRenzis said her public health inspiration came from her mother, who entered the field from the business end. Originally a paralegal, DeRenzis’ mother earned a master’s degree in business administration and since then has worked for many years in health policy and management, first as a hospital CFO, and presently as director of support services at the Shared Services Center in Sarasota.
“She taught me that nothing is impossible, and that it takes hard work to become successful,” DeRenzis said. “Although my dad is not in the health field, he is still an inspiration to me, too. He has his own financial consultant business and teaches high school algebra. You can say that I get my mathematics and number skills from my parents. Both are very hard-working. Both have always said that education is very important and taught my brother and me to never give up.”
Those number skills led DeRenzis to major in mathematics initially, but public health held a growing appeal for her that was not to be denied.
“I knew I wanted to work in the medical field,” she said, “but I wanted to do it on a more personal level. I actually had no idea what I wanted to do when I changed my major to public health. Everyone said changing from mathematics to public health was a huge change and questioned my decision on pursuing a different track other than medical school. However, I had a feeling that public health was right for me, thus took a chance and made the change. In the end, it was the best decision I ever made.”
Like Piper, DeRenzis gives COPH in-house inspiration plenty of high marks.
“Dr. Kay Perrin has been my mentor since my first semester as a COPH student,” DeRenzis said. “She has helped me find my way academically and professionally. She inspires me to continue to work hard and to never give up.
“My experience as a COPH student has been amazing,” she continued. “All my professors were attentive and active throughout my courses, which were mostly online. My advisor, Annette Strzelecki, was always there to answer any of my questions and responded daily. Overall, the staff and faculty that I have interacted with during my time here were amazing – willing to help, and willing to help provide resources for different opportunities that would help us grow as public health professionals.”
From valedictorian at Sebring High School in 2013 to summa cum laude graduate of South Florida State College in 2014 to Graduate of COPH in 2015 (dean’s list last fall), DeRenzis is a poster child for cranking the vague intangibility of “hard work” into specific, tangible success, especially in light of all she did along the way as a volunteer for Good Shepherd Hospice, Relay for Life, Moffitt Cancer Center and others.
Her efforts earned her a handful of scholarships that she made sure she put to good use, but DeRenzis isn’t finished yet, not by a long shot. To likely no one’s surprise, she has applied for graduate school at the USF College of Public Health beginning fall 2015, studying for an MPH with specializing in epidemiology and biostatistics. It looks like the public health ambition and numbers skills have found a way to come together.
And after that?
“I hope to one day obtain my PhD and continue to rise in the field of epidemiology,” she said.
If recent history is any indication, that day is not very far off.
Thanks to the Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Betty Castor Scholarship for Global Initiatives, Jennifer Stenback has been able to tackle her college education without constant financial stress. The 2013 U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Undergraduate Award winner credits the USF Foundation not only for setting her up for educational success, but for believing she was capable in the first place.
“It is so encouraging to have someone reach out and show you that they believe in you and support your goals,” she said. “The scholarship I received through Women in Leadership and Philanthropy has empowered me by surrounding me with a network of women who exemplify true success: achieving your goals to help others achieve theirs.”
Stenback graduated this month from the USF College of Public Health with a bachelor of science in public health. Originally on track for pre-med education, the Vero Beach native was lured to public health by its community perspective.
“I think the challenges of addressing population-level health disparities are extremely interesting,” said Stenback. “Public health combines my passion for community service and the medical field in a way which allows me to enact real change in the communities I work in.”
One thing’s for certain: If her involvement in student life is any indicator of the future, she will accomplish many things for whatever community she works in. Stenback is a mentor and the newsletter senior staff reporter with the Provost’s Scholars Program, co-president of the Bulls for Moffitt Club, volunteer co-chair of the Honors College Student Council, and the internal communications director of Leaders of the Herd. She’s also participated in research as a USF public health student with Dr. Dawood Sultan, former faculty member in the Department of Health Policy and Management.
Presently, Stenback works as a volunteer research intern with TRIP, Moffitt’s Tobacco Research and Intervention Program. She and other volunteers conduct studies on youth perception of electronic cigarettes.
“Public health is really multi-disciplinary, and I feel like I am always discovering new ways public health is practiced and applied,” she said.
Although the ink on her diploma is barely dry, Stenback already has begun planning her professional path. She hopes to tie in her love of travel and planning for the perfect career, specializing in global health in the area of program development, monitoring and evaluation as a public health program advisor.
“I love the logistics of planning a project and seeing it implemented,” said Stenback. “My travels to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic helped me to see how I could apply that skill in areas lacking resources. The challenge of incorporating cultural beliefs and practices into effective interventions is something I am excited to explore in my career.”
Through her time with COPH, Stenback gained much more than an undergraduate education. She had the opportunity to travel to countries like the Bahamas and England, and work in a variety of different environments. Now, with a wealth of experience, she is more than ready to take on her graduate studies without financial struggle.
“The support I received at USF has helped place me in a position where I can continue my education at a graduate level,” she said.
Stenback believes those who donate to scholarships are doing much more than writing checks. To her, they’re funding dreams. They’re encouraging a student, somewhere, to work hard, to dream big, and to keep trucking on.
“In giving to COPH, you are supporting the next generation of change agents, the next generation of people who make the world a little better by fighting for the conditions in which all people can be healthy,” she said.
This spring’s graduating class also was collectively notable for a numerical milestone. The 171 receiving their bachelor’s degrees broke the thousand mark by bringing the total to 1,038 who have earned their four-year degrees since the undergraduate public health major was established in 2011.
Story by David Brothers, College of Public Health. Jennifer Stenback portion by Shelby Bourgeois, COPH writing intern, who also graduated this spring.
Tags: Amanda DeRenzis, Betty Castor, commencement, Fulbright, Geraldine Piper, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, Jennifer Stenback, Kay Perrin, student scholarship, study abroad, undergraduate education, volunteerism, Women in Leadership and Philanthropy