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Arnold School of Public Health


HSPM student wins national award for leadership in rural health

September 16, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Originally from Alabama, Melinda Merrell is a doctoral student in the Department of Health Services Policy and Management (HSPM) who recently received the 2015 National Organization of State Offices of Rural HealthEmerging Leader Award. In addition to her Arnold School studies, Merrell works full time as the Senior Program Director for the South Carolina Office of Rural Health.

“I always knew that I wanted to get my Ph.D., and I was lucky enough for the stars to align for it to fit in with my full-time work schedule,” she says. “Several of my colleagues are either current or former students or faculty at USC and were also very influential in choosing Carolina.”

Since earning a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Merrell has worked in the field of public health for nearly a decade now. With her current role, she oversees the Office’s efforts to provide training and technical assistance for all types of rural health care providers. Merrell also serves in a variety of advisory roles on rural health-related matters.

All of these activities make a HSPM degree from the Arnold School a perfect fit. “I am passionate about rural health care issues,” she says. “And with many of the faculty affiliates at the Arnold School’s S.C. Rural Health Research Center being HSPM-focused, it was an easy choice.” She also notes that HSPM represents an area of great potential and growth due to the transitions the United States is undertaking related to health care reform.

Even though juggling a career and school can be demanding, Merrell wouldn’t change her path even if she could. “I am a little biased in this, but I think real-world experience makes so much of a difference,” she says. “I can reflect on what a different experience I had getting my MPH—with very little practical work experience—compared to how my coursework is now; having examples from work makes learning so much more meaningful.”

Merrell’s application of those lessons helped lead to her Emerging Leader Award, which is presented annually to one Office of Rural Health staff member out of the 50 offices—one for each state. To win it, Merrell had to demonstrate leadership, initiative and commitment to improving rural health in the United States through advocacy, education and partnerships.

“I am very committed to my work not only in S.C. but also at the national level in improving access to care for rural communities,” she says. “I think one of the most powerful things that State Offices of Rural Health can do in this effort is network—we help make connections and share ideas with each other to make the load a little lighter.”

Merrell also believes in the power of a positive attitude. “Overwhelmingly, my mentors have all taught me that staying optimistic and focusing on the big picture are keys to success in school and in life,” she says. “Easier said than done some days, but worth it in the end.”