COPH grad Norma Lisenko makes healthy families, communities her mission

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It was a passion for nutrition that first drove Norma Lisenko, who received her DrPH degree in Advanced Practice Leadership from the USF College of Public Health (COPH) in 2021, to investigate a career in public health. 

“I’m passionate about nutrition, physical activity, holistic wellness, mental health, children and women,” said Lisenko, who grew up in El Salvador and Mexico before immigrating to the U.S. when she was 15. “Communities cannot thrive unless we have healthy families. And to have healthy, thriving families, they must have access to healthy food, feel empowered to make healthy food choices and have access to and feel safe in spaces where they can engage in exercise and experience nature for physical and mental health.”

Norma Lisenko, DrPH. (Photo courtesy of Lisenko)

After getting her MPH with a concentration in community nutrition education from San Francisco State University, Lisenko, who lives in Benicia, Calif., started putting what she learned into action. 

She’s been a nutrition health educator with the Benicia School District (a public school district with about 5,000 students), the founding executive director of Healthy Cooking With Kids, Inc., a nonprofit with the mission of promoting healthy living and reducing childhood obesity and a nutrition educator to CalFresh participants (CalFresh is a federally mandated, state-supervised program bringing monthly food benefits to low-income individuals and families).

Lisenko and her family pictured in a CalFresh advertisement. (Photo courtesy of Lisenko)

Looking to gain more leadership training, Lisenko started to consider a DrPH degree, and that’s when she stumbled upon the COPH. 

“It was an online program, which I had never done before, and I was kind of hesitant about online education,” Lisenko said. “But I decided to apply because the program didn’t require applicants to take the GRE if they had an MPH with a 3.5 GPA. This was truly the selling point for me—my GRE results were really bad! The other selling point was the fact that the program’s concentration was in developing advanced leadership skills in public health. I had been in public health for over 10 years at this point, so this part was very attractive.”

But the thing that really sealed the deal for Lisenko was the endorsement she got from a long-time friend. “I wasn’t sure about attending, as it was so far,” she said. “I had never been to Florida and the cost of travel with tuition might not be feasible for me and my family. The degree program is a hybrid course of study that requires students to attend three seminars in person. So, I did what I always do when I need to make a decision in an uncertain situation, I prayed and asked God for a sign.” 

Lisenko said that about that time she reached out to a friend who had been living in Georgia but had recently moved—to Tampa. “This was the sign I had been asking for,” Lisenko said. “I told her that I had recently been accepted to USF and I needed to let them know if I was going to accept, but I was hesitant because I didn’t really know about the school. She then laughed and told me that her daughter attends USF and that it’s an excellent research school!”

Lisenko said some of the best features of the DrPH program are its affordability and flexibility. She also appreciated the encouragement of faculty members, particularly assistant professor Dr. Joe Bohn, whom she says would email often to check in and keep her on track, and associate professor Dr. Heewon Gray, her faculty advisor. “She supported any ideas I had for my dissertation, even when I changed the topic after I had spent a year doing the literature review,” Lisenko said. “I recommend the program to everyone who asks. It allowed me to conduct my own research in the area that I’m passionate about.”

And some of that research has recently been published. In August, Lisenko had her first research article, Optimizing Outcomes: A Systematic Review of Psychosocial Risk Factors Affecting Perinatal Black/African-American Women with Substance Use Disorder in the United State, in the Maternal and Child Health Journal. Co-authors included the COPH’s Drs. Gray and Bohn.

“This was my very first time submitting a manuscript to an academic journal, and it got accepted on my first attempt,” Lisenko said. “I work full time and had two kids at home (and one in college) at the time, so finding time to complete my dissertation was a true challenge. COVID-19 happened when I was starting to write my dissertation in 2020. Being forced to stay at home, isolated, truly helped me concentrate on writing my dissertation.”

Lisenko, center, with team members from Innovative Health Solutions during a staff retreat in Marin County, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Lisenko)

Lisenko now works as the founding CEO/CFO at Innovative Health Solutions, a nonprofit that collaborates with private and public organizations to bring wellness to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“It’s a job that allows me to grow and learn about different aspects of the wonderful field of public health,” she commented. “I’m developing my skills as a researcher now. I used to only work in planning and implementing programs but now, I’m moving toward developing evidence-based innovative programs that can be implemented in other communities. This is the legacy I’m leaving for communities.”

Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

A veterinarian in my childhood. A dancer in my teen years. A child psychologist in my 20s. A registered dietitian in my 30s. 

Where would we find you on the weekend? 

At church on Sundays as part of the worship team, spending time with my husband of 25 years, hanging out with my kids or family or connecting with a friend. If I’m alone reading, writing or getting a massage/facial.

What is the last book you read?

I’m the type of person who reads many books at the same time but never finishes them unless they keep me interested. The last book I read fully was “Why We Sleep,” by Matthew Walker, PhD. It was fascinating! 

What superpower would you like to have?

The power of reading, absorbing and processing knowledge like a computer–that would be cool!

What’s your all-time favorite movie?

“The Notebook,” of course! I’m a hopeless romantic.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health