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Arnold School of Public Health


HPEB professional online MPH student helps bring smiles to children and young adults in Madagascar through free oral and facial surgeries

June 26, 2018 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu

After growing up in Georgia, it was a logical fit for Alyssa Geis to earn her bachelor’s degree at the University of Georgia. Following her 2010 graduation, she accepted a Child Life Fellowship at the Children’s Hospital at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in Oklahoma City, and her health career began in earnest.

Six months into her fellowship, Geis was hired to join the Medical Center as a Certified Child Life Specialist, helping young patients and their families prepare for surgery and serving as their advocate. Nearly five years in, Geis added another dimension to her role: child life student programs coordinator. It was around this time that Geis began seriously looking into online/professional master’s programs in public health.

“One of my friends attended USC’s Arnold School of Public Health for her doctoral program years ago, and she always spoke so highly of her experiences,” Geis says. “As I reviewed the health promotion, education, and behavior coursework, I enjoyed the program format, variety of classes and the course applicability to my current career. I was eager to apply and was thrilled to be accepted!”

The master of public health (MPH) in health promotion, education, and behavior (HPEB) professional online program offered Geis the flexibility she was looking for with courses filled with a diverse set of highly transferable, interdisciplinary skills that help health professionals become more impactful agents of changes in people’s lives. Designed for current practitioners in health-related professional occupations, the completely online, asynchronous format enabled Geis to continue her current career and would take only 24-26 months of continuous study to complete.

“I’ve been so grateful to work with incredible instructors and collaborate with fellow students,” she says. “I have received great guidance from Dr. Kelli Kenison, who has provided wonderful support and identifies the importance of implementing course knowledge to ‘real life,’ and Dr. Xiaoming Li, whose excitement and passion for the field are contagious and whose energy makes me even more excited about utilizing my new public health skill set.”

While cultures may differ, we all have the same vision of making the world a better place, now and in the future.

-Alyssa Geis, MPH in HPEB student

The MPH in HPEB professional online program’s format also supported Geis’ commitment to continue to working with Operation Smile, an international charity that provides free surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with cleft palate, cleft lip, or other dental and facial conditions. Geis recently completed her third medical mission trip with Operation Smile, all while continuing her online courses within her program.

In April, the Living Legacy Maker Award winner traveled to Madagascar where she provided developmentally appropriate education and support to children scheduled for surgery and their families. With language barriers often posing challenges to this education, Geis often used purposeful play to help patients and their families, many of whom have never been in a hospital, understand what to expect during preparation, surgery and post-op, with a focus on physical, cognitive and psychosocial needs. Together with the three other mission sites, Geis and the other Operation Smile volunteers helped perform more than 350 free cleft lip and palate surgeries for families in Madagascar and educated local clinicians on the program and recovery care.

“While cultures may differ, we all have the same vision of making the world a better place, now and in the future,” Geis says of her biggest take away from the experience. “I observed this through the adoration between the family members and their child who was a surgical patient and through the attentive services the volunteers demonstrated throughout the 10-day program.”

The Distinct Inspiration Awardee has now completed approximately two thirds of her master’s program, and she’s been applying course concepts to her work from day one. Now she’ll have a new context in which to implement lessons from her program. This month, Geis is moving to Austin, Texas where she will join the Dell Children’s Medical Center as a child life specialist.

Long term, she’d like to utilize her knowledge of the hospitalized child and public health promotion and education to work with children in the school system. “I’d like to help them identify the importance and need for a healthy diet, good sleeping habits, routine exercise and stress management,” says Geis.