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Walden Magazine // Apr 09, 2014

Melissa Thomas: My Story

Before my doctoral degree I felt I was limited. I didn’t have the background or framework in public health that I needed to pursue additional grant interests or other research initiatives.

My degree in public health allows me to pursue larger research grant initiatives, and I am now viewed as an expert. I already had the passion, commitment, and the drive for social change. I just needed my educational background to catch up.

Who was your inspiration for earning your degree?

It was my grandmother. She was truly the hero in my world—we had a very strong connection. I felt throughout my childhood that she was the one person who really got me. She really inspired me and encouraged my interest in science.

We were very close, but when I was only 13, she died of a cancer that could have been prevented had she had access to care and knowledge about the disease. It absolutely devastated me, and that was my inspiration. I knew at that moment that I would do something with my life so that her death was not in vain.

Their mission of social change. I was looking for a university that shared my value set, one that looked at education as a means to help improve the world—not just as an end, or a piece of paper.

Walden didn’t make me choose between my commitment to social change and advancing my education. They gave me the opportunity to do both at the same time.

I felt that Walden truly shared my values. I believe that higher education is not just about advancing your career or personal self; it’s about achieving greater good, and Walden understands that. They gave me the opportunity and tools to develop my commitment and passion to social change.

What was your dissertation topic?

My dissertation topic centered on one of the key populations that I still work with—the Amish and Mennonite communities. I was looking at risk factors associated with breast cancer in these women.

I wanted to understand more about the objective and subjective risk factors associated with breast cancer. To increase screening rates for breast cancer among Amish and Mennonite women and so help reduce their high death rates from it.

What did you think of Walden’s faculty?

At Walden I had an opportunity to work with faculty members who were in more advanced stages of their careers, who were very well established and from diverse backgrounds.

I can’t stress enough how important that was to me. It really helped shape my understanding, especially from a public health standpoint, in looking at different perspectives and addressing public health issues from very diverse backgrounds.

How important was Walden’s commitment to social change?

When the primary focus of a university is truly centered on making a difference in the world, that education is a gift. It’s also a privilege and a responsibility.

Walden believes that it doesn’t matter what you study, it’s what you do with your degree. Underlying everything they do is a belief in a common goal of making a positive difference in the world around you. It gives Walden a perspective that is very, very different from other universities.

What does your family think about your degree?

I was the first person in my family to go to college. So to achieve the level of Ph.D. was just such an overwhelming experience for everyone in my family. It was such a glowing tribute to honor my grandmother, who so supported my education. It was a very emotional experience.

How has your degree changed you?

I’m much more confident in my abilities to take a leadership role in public health initiatives now. Having a Ph.D. has put me on a level playing ground with other researchers and faculty members in the field. I don’t feel intimidated anymore—I know I have a quality education, and I know I have the tools I need to go out and make an impact.

How did Walden change your world?

Social change is at the heart of everything I do. “How can I make a difference in other peoples’ lives?” is a question I ask at the start of every project and one that keeps me up at night. I want to know I’m making an impact and benefiting society.

Anybody can go to an academic institution and get a degree, but it’s what you do with it that makes the difference.

On a personal level, toward the end of my degree I was promoted to manager of health disparities research at my healthcare organization. And in 2011, I founded the Office of Health Equity. That was something I never would have had an opportunity to do without my degree from Walden.

I’m now more driven and passionate than ever because now I know that anything’s possible—I’m not limited anymore because I don’t have a Ph.D., understand the grant process, or feel uncomfortable talking to researchers. I have the confidence now to make much more of an impact in the communities that I serve.